We’re in a golden age of mourning the golden age of journalism.
This weekend we have “Truth,” about the 2004 scandal that brought down Dan Rather; two weeks later follows “Spotlight,” about the scandal that brought down the Catholic church in Boston. The latter unfolded during 2001 and 2002, earning The Boston Globe a Pulitzer. During the middle of its reporting comes 9/11, which put America on a course to war.
“Truth” repeats news reports showing Bush and Kerry near-tied in the polls. We also see the same Swift Boat ads — among many screens-within-screens here — that so damaged the Vietnam War veteran and Massachusetts senator; also watching is “60 Minutes” producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett).
Her story, she believes, is even bigger: How the sitting wartime president ducked the draft in the Texas Air National Guard from 1968 through 1973. Via her paper trail, the White House hawk will be revealed a dishonest chicken hawk, with the election just two months away.
Fresh off the success of their Abu Ghraib revelations, Mapes and her team are rushing to supply Rather (Robert Redford) with a juicy scoop. And to deliver the huge, profitable TV ratings desired by CBS.
We know how badly that story turned out, and the challenge for these two journalistic accounts — look for Robert Horton’s review of the superior “Spotlight” in The Herald’s Nov. 13 A&E section — is to dramatize past events, to convince us a dozen years later that they still matter.
It’s one thing to stream “All the President’s Men” on Netflix to appreciate the past craftsmanship and hair styles of a distant era, the Vietnam era; another to analogize the abuses of power to our Snowden present.
Redford, of course, was a crusading liberal who played a crusading reporter in “President’s Men”; now he’s playing the crusty old newsroom lion — rather like Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee in that film. The young guns in “Truth” live in awe of Rather and crave his approval (none more so than Mapes, for reasons to be revealed).
As in any profession, however, passion can lead you astray. Mapes comes on strong, a high-strung careerist who leaves behind her husband and young son in Dallas for weeks at a time. (Raised in Burlington, she attended the University of Washington and started her career at KIRO, where she worked alongside John Carlson — whose KVI show her father Don would later call to defame her.)
She’s all about the story, 24/7, pushy in getting her way, which will later lead to predictable anti-feminist epithets from the Internet enemies of CBS. She’s convinced of the righteousness of her cause, as is her gung-ho team (Elisabeth Moss, Topher Grace, and Dennis Quaid).
Her various sources — Stacy Keach prime among them — are a little squishy about photocopied documents that are a (small) piece of the case against the president. Their story seems solid, while the evidence devolves into the superscript fonts of vintage typewriters on which young Bush’s damning TANG evaluations were supposedly written. And 3 … 2 … 1, you’re on the air, Mr. Rather!
First-time director James Vanderbilt — yes, from that family — based this account on Mapes’ 2005 book. Previously the writer of “Zodiac” and “The Amazing Spider-Man” (both with newspapermen heroes), he’s obviously aiming to vindicate his proud, flawed heroine.
And given all we now know about Vietnam, 9/11, W, and Iraq, we outside the Red States will be on Vanderbilt’s side. Mapes, while cutting a few corners, was clearly right in her overall narrative, while her CBS bosses were clearly wrong in their nitpicking and ass-covering.
With no Texas accent, Redford’s Rather exists like Yoda, a principled, scotch-swilling icon who accepts adulation as his due, then nobly falls on his sword; his grubby CBS lawsuit is confined to the postscripts.
But what does any of this matter today? Watching Blanchett’s fine and fiercely committed performance, Mapes swilling Chardonnay and Xanax to assuage her pain, I thought less about the crash-dive of journalism (a given) than the glass ceiling in a sexist trade (no less true today at Yahoo, Amazon, Google, etc.).
Rather may be her surrogate Daddy, and Mapes may have an enlightened husband back home, but here is a woman alone against the tyranny of a male cyber-mob. (This is the kind of movie where someone despairs, “The bloggers are having a field day!”)
In one of “Truth’s” more effective scenes, Mapes ill-advisedly Googles her name — yielding the toxic new normal of Internet misogyny. First those anonymous citizen commentators criticized her fonts; then they mobilized a hate-wave that humbled the Tiffany Network. (The FOX News demo’s most damning charge against Rather and CBS, as you may recall, was liberal bias.)
So while I want to sympathize and cluck my tongue at the degradation of my trade, that’s not the same thing as a compelling movie. Mapes’ and Rather’s downfall is sad, but less dramatically interesting than, say, the case of disgraced News of the World editor Rebekah Brooks (brought down by the phone-hacking scandal), who was protected and rehabilitated by her corporate patron, Rupert Murdoch. (Something of a Lear figure here, Rather has prestige, not power.)
What “Truth” gets right, when Rather calls Mapes from his Park Avenue terrace before resigning, is that quality TV journalism was never meant to be profitable; it was only subsidized during a brief golden era by FCC fairness rules that the Web (and government deregulation) have demolished. Brooks and Murdoch understand the new hyper-partisan media market; Mapes and Rather come to the same realization too late.
Even as it celebrates, like “Spotlight,” the old-fashioned process of journalism, the self-validating “Truth” asks us to pity Mapes in a way that “Shattered Glass” and “True Story” never did their discredited heroes. (Note that I say hero, not heroine.)
And no one will make a movie about The New York Times’ Jill Abramson, whose flawed reporting helped justify a war in which tens of thousands died. Mapes merely made aggressive mistakes about a war then 30 years past, its damage done. Or so we thought.
What sticks with you in “Truth” is the ongoing cultural war between the establishment — once embodied by Nixon, here Rather — and an angry public. What drove the events in “All the President’s Men?” The sense that we were being lied to, that the official story wasn’t true. Mapes and Rather were following that same sound instinct until it was turned against them, a thousandfold and more.
We live by the pen, die by the cursor.
Brian Miller is Arts Editor for Seattle Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com or 206-467-4372.
Rating: R, for language and a brief nude photo
Showing: Alderwood Mall, Everett Stadium, Meridian, Sundance Cinemas Seattle, Thornton Place Stadium 14, Cascade Mall
For a Q&A with Mary Mapes, the Burlington-Edison and University of Washington grad at the heart of “Truth,” visit www.heraldnet.com/entertainment.