Posted on October 22, 2015 at 5:03 pm

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures

Often a movie “based on a true story” confirms and extends our understanding of what happened. This film, based on the “true story” that led to the departure of one of the most respected newsmen of all time, Dan Rather, from CBS, asserts its ambitions with its title and goes on to explore the very nature of truth and our willingness or ability to uncover and recognize it. I did not have strong views about what happened in 2004, just a recollection of the incident as a turning point, with the most respected broadcast journalist in the country being brought down by bloggers, who were able to determine that documents relied on in a story about President George W. Bush were forgeries. In my mind, the story was about the shift from old to new media, where the Davids of the blogosphere could challenge the powerful Goliaths of CBS News.

But in this movie, based on the book by Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett, blazingly intelligent and forceful), we see another side of the story, written by James Vanderbilt. This is her version (if there is such a thing as versions) of the truth.

No matter which version of the story you believe, lesson number one of this movie is that you are at your most vulnerable when you feel most powerful. Mapes has just come off the greatest triumph of her career, the Peabody award-winning story about the horrific abuse of prisoners by the US military at Abu Ghraib. She is looking for another great scoop, and as the Presidential election approaches, it looks like she has one. Rumors about special treatment for George W. Bush, both in being allowed to serve in the National Guard and during his time there, have circulated for years, and now there seems to be substantiation, including on-the-record statements by the former Lieutenant Governor and some memos from the younger Bush’s commanding officer. Four document experts were called in by Mapes to authenticate the documents and, with the proviso that as photocopies there was no way to test the ink or paper of the originals to verify them completely, the experts signed off. The other steps taken by Mapes and the staff of reporters, including research expert Mike Smith (Topher Grace, who should be in more movies) and former military officer Dennis Quaid (ditto), are impressive. But it is possible that their supervisors did not ask enough questions and it is certain that moving up the broadcast date at the last minute cut off their ability to lock down all of the story.

And then it all fell apart. Bloggers identified problems with the memos’ fonts that indicated they were created on a computer, not a typewriter, and thus could not have been written in the 1970’s. CBS convened a commission led by a former (Republican) Attorney General to review the story. Their focus was not as much on whether the story was true or not (the memos were just one small part of the story) but whether the reporters had a political agenda.

A lot of people got fired. Smith makes a speech on the way out the door that identifies a culprit more insidious than partisan politics — corporate conflicts of interest. There are times when protection of shareholder value is not consistent with getting the story. The most important question this movie asks is what that means for democracy and for, well, truth.

Parents should know that this movie has very strong language and brief nudity in a photograph. Characters drink and take medicine to deal with stress. There are references to torture and child abuse and there are tense confrontations.

Family discussion: What should Mary have done differently? How did her childhood experiences affect her relationship with Rather and her response to her father? Should she have followed her lawyer’s advice?

If you like this, try two other fact-based films about journalists fighting to expose the truth about powerful people: “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight

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Based on a true story Drama Journalism

Interview: James Vanderbilt on “Truth,” With Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford

Posted on October 22, 2015 at 3:06 pm

James Vanderbilt wrote and directed Truth, based on journalist Mary Mapes’ book about the controversial story that ended her career at CBS News. Working with Dan Rather, she produced a news story with explosive allegations about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service in a story broadcast on “60 Minutes Wednesday” shortly before election day 2004. The allegations were based in part on two memos purported to be from the personal files of Bush’s late supervisor. After the broadcast, bloggers claimed they were forgeries. CBS organized a commission led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and former Associated Press President Louis Boccardi, which produced a 224-page report, finding that the story was biased and inadequately supported.

The movie is based on the book by Mapes, with her side of the story. It stars Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. Vanderbilt talked to me about his film, journalism, and legal standards of evidence and how all three relate to the challenges of truth and storytelling. “There are no rules and regulations in terms of how you put story on the air. It’s always a judgment call which is not obviously how things are done in the legal profession. So felt, I think, that they were in very new territory speaking to people who were Lawyers about how news is built and delivered and what their process was.”

Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Copyright 2015 Sony Pictures
Throughout most of the film, Mapes is exceptionally strong and decisive. But when her father publicly accuses her of having a left-wing agenda, she is painfully vulnerable. “I think it was the moment that broke her a little bit. One of the things that drew me to the story was her as a person and her as a character. You meet this woman who is at the height of her powers in many ways. She is extraordinarily bright and funny, she has the best job in her field, the perfect job, she works with the face of CBS news and she’s the one behind that putting those stories together for him. She’s just done the story of her career with , she has a great husband, she has a great kid. And so when we meet her it seems like it’s perfect, everything is perfect. As all of this goes down those pieces of armor that we all sort of have starts to get stripped away. We all have that scared kid inside us and those pieces of armor of protecting that kid, but they can disappear. And that moment with her father near the end was finally exposing her as a raw nerve. You think that scene is going to go one way and it goes another. And she just can’t do it. And when she told me that story I was floored that that really happened. And also seeing the relationship that she and Dan had first-hand from watching them interact I started to kind of go, ‘Oh this is what this is about, about this relationship, and fathers and daughters,’ and that’s really the emotion behind the piece. And that’s really why that whole storyline matters.”

Eleven years after the events of the film, Vanderbilt says that “Investigative journalism is in a very dangerous please right now. And I think investigative journalism is incredibly important and longer lead stories don’t get done. In the film there’s a moment where they go ‘Oh my God we only have five days to put this together’ and journalists I talk now go ‘God, I’ve got five days?'” He does not confuse his role with journalism, though. “My job first and foremost as a filmmaker is just to make an interesting film. I have to tell a compelling story. It’s up to you to decide whether we succeeded or not, but that’s the most important part of it for me. The subject matter in the story we are telling obviously is about investigative journalism so I wanted to do as much of that for ourselves as possible to try and put as many different ideas and point of view in the film as possible, too.”

Vanderbilt said that he especially loved talking to Dan Rather as a part of his research for the film. “The great thing about what I get to do is I get to sort of step into everybody’s job. I sit down and say, ‘Okay so what’s your day like? When do you wake up? Do you read papers in the morning, do you go online?’ And I love that process. Journalism is the only other thing besides what I do I ever considered going into because they are both storytelling. So I’ve always been fascinated with that world. Getting to sit with Dan Rather, just to sit with him, forget about the movie,0 was a great experience and getting to pick his brain, getting the details, not in terms of the factual like ‘Did this happen and this happen and this happen,’ because that is recorded other places and of course we went through that with him as well, but the feeling of the newsroom: ‘How did you feel when this happened? What was your experience like when this happened?’ And getting to watch him — you get to go to dinner with him and you can ask him questions — but then you observe, how is he treating the waiter. How is he having a conversation? My wife was at the dinner and at one point, like we all do, he used a curse word and he immediately apologized to her and immediately for me as a writer I go, ‘Oh, that’s great! That’s such a personality telling detail.’ And so there’s a moment in the film where he says ‘bullshit’ and then he apologizes to the makeup artist. But that’s the stuff that makes him human. And so with Dan a lot of what I was trying to do is to portray him as he really is in life and take this, the human quality of him, the stuff that you don’t always see through the television and bring that into the character. He was absolutely and extraordinarily gracious to all of us. And there were many opportunities for him to say during this whole process, ‘I’m anchoring the news five nights a week and doing all of these other stuff. I got that information from my producers.’ He could have thrown that team under the bus like that and that never happened and I felt that was a very telling interesting facet of him as a character.”

Cate Blanchett was so committed to the role that she actually learned to knit and practiced for hours for the few seconds her character was knitting on screen. “It is maybe five seconds in the finished film and Cate Blanchett was the type of person who goes and learns to knit for that moment. So that’s the level of actor you are dealing with.” And Vanderbilt encouraged Robert Redford to play Dan Rather by reminding him of the commitment to journalism he showed in producing and starring in “All the President’s Men.”

The title of the film is a bold choice. “The name of the movie is ‘Truth’ not because I know what the truth is. It is because it is the thing that everybody’s trying to get to in the movie. And it’s difficult to find. It’s elusive and tricky and you go down the rabbit hole looking for it sometimes. And clearly people lose careers over it but it still that thing that we all should be pulling for and we should want our journalists and media pulling for at the end of the day because that’s what keeps our society free.”

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Behind the Scenes Directors Interview Writers

Just Announced: Redford as Rather and Another Biblical Epic from Ridley Scott

Posted on July 12, 2014 at 8:00 am

Two intriguing new announcements about upcoming films:

As the first trailer for his Moses epic is released, starring Christian Bale (and a lot of other actors who are not of Middle Eastern ethnicity), Ridley Scott has announced that he will also be making another Biblical epic, this one about David.

And Robert Redford will play CBS newsman Dan Rather in “Truth,” the story of the disastrous presentation of a story about President Bush’s military service that turned out to be based on falsified documents.  Cate Blanchett has been cast as Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes.

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Behind the Scenes In Production
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