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October 23, 2015

Back when the Soviet Union was still a thing, the official paper of the Communist Party was Pravda, or “Truth”, while the official paper of the Soviet government was Izvestia, or “News”. Naturally, they weren’t exactly competitors, but the saying ran “In The Truth there is no news; in The News there is no truth.”

Thirty years later, we don’t seem to expect much truth in news here either. Fox has admitted to being largely a propaganda wing of the Republican party, while most of MSNBC takes a decidedly liberal slant. Even away from cable, nobody seems to trust journalism. Long-form investigative work doesn’t pay off nearly so well as outraged click-bait opinions and horse-race politics. “Media bias” is the fashionable term for “bias that doesn’t correspond with mine.” The news is seen as just another advertising channel to be massaged and manipulated, most stunningly when some misinformation in the wrong hands brought down one of the most respected television journalists of all time.

The question, then, is whether there’s any news in Truth, James Vanderbilt’s adaptation of Mary Mapes’ memoir, Truth and Duty.

Back in 2004, Mapes (Cate Blanchett) was the producer working with Dan Rather (Robert Redford) on a 60 Minutes Wednesday story about whether or not then-president George W. Bush had used family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard rather than serve in Vietnam, and whether once there he had lived up to his commitments. She assembled a team to dig in: journalism professor Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), young hotshot Mike Smith (Topher Grace), and retired Marine Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) for details about military practices of the time.

The story really blew up, though, when Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) showed up with a couple of memos. Or, rather, copies of copies of copies of memos, purportedly from Bush’s commanding officer, claiming that he couldn’t rate Bush’s performance because Bush hadn’t been showing up for duty. After beating their heads against stonewalling sources for so long, this was exactly the break the team needed.

Except the people they asked to verify the documents were ambivalent. There were questions about the typeface, and no tests could be performed on the missing originals. Even the one confirmation they had on the record about the memos wasn’t exactly a full-throated endorsement. And yet, faced with two solid weeks of reality show pre-emption and the desire not to make the story into an October Surprise, they ran with it. And all hell broke loose.

Is any of this new? I’ll admit, I may have paid more attention to the story when it actually happened than most Americans did, but how many people who didn’t care about it at the height of one of the bitterest election seasons in recent memory will care to watch a film about it now? Yes, the memoir and the movie show how the team worked the story, but does anyone outside of diehard Bush loyalists believe they didn’t, or that they were in on the deception themselves? All this adaptation really amounts to is “we were duped, and weren’t careful enough to catch it”, which everybody who cares about the story already understands.

To this day, Mapes and Rather will maintain that the underlying story about Bush’s service is true, and that the commotion about the (likely-fraudulent) memos is only an unfortunate distraction. But without the memos, they never actually proved their case, or so it would seem. Vanderbilt’s script gets as distracted as anyone else about the memos, and it never fills in any replacement evidence the team might have turned up. The truth to the story they wanted to tell is still out there, if anywhere.

Not that Truth doubts their version for a second. Vanderbilt presents the team as unquestionably heroic; equal to the likes of Woodward and Bernstein. But as much as I would love their Bush story to have been true, I can’t just give it to them on the basis of good intentions. All the impassioned speeches about how right and honorable they are; all the silent, emotional closeups; and all the overbearing, comic-book-movie score in the world won’t change that.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel-Wallace Test: fail.

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