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Forty years have passed since Robert Redford starred alongside Dustin Hoffman in All The President’s Men. The Watergate scandal engendered a suffix now synonymous with corruption and Alan J. Pakula’s masterpiece stands as an equally significant benchmark for representations of never-say-die journalism. In spite of brazenly obvious but noble intentions, James Vanderbilt’s Truth – in which Redford again features as a pioneering newsman – does not make the bench, or even the same ballpark, as its seminal cinematic forefather.
Introduced in instantly recognisable profile against stage lights, the now veteran actor plays former 60 Minutes anchorman Dan Rather. He, along with producer Mary Mapes (an ever captivating Cate Blanchett) and an assembled A-Team of researchers, uncover information that could flip the 2004 US election on its head. Did George W. Bush enlist the help of a family friend to avoid serving in Vietnam? And when drafted into the Texas Air National Guard, did he even turn up? Confident in having the facts “nailed down” Mapes and the gang go to work. No sooner has the show aired to gawping extras across the country does the proverbial hit the fan with the veracity of a key memo called into question. Cue trolling outcry, legal wrangling, a witch hunt and all congratulatory high fives turning to career-ending tails between legs. Corporate-political machine 1 – 0 The Truth.
Vanderbilt’s taut, incisive writing for Zodiac was vital to the well-deserved acclaim David Fincher’s 2007 thriller received. Drawn from an account by Mapes of the debacle, it is hard to fathom how he can have come up with such a woeful script for his own directorial debut. An early warning sign is the word ‘truth’ being hammered home repeatedly before a jar-headed Dennis Quaid, as Lt. Col. Roger Charles, compounds matters by saying “they’re the military, they’re good at shit.” Shortly thereafter it’s highlighted and underlined several times that asking questions in journalism is important. Groan. The only saving grace is that no character says “period” at the end of pay-attention-now-viewer sentences. However, Bryan Tyler’s embarrassingly heavy-handed score intrudes at key moments to do precisely that job with the bludgeoning subtlety of a baseball bat to the temple.
Fuelled by a cocktail of xanax and buckets of chardonnay, it must be said that Blanchett is superb as Mapes; a driven, slightly nutty, whirlwind of a woman on a mission. The Australian could no doubt bring the phonebook to life but is let down by the material at her disposal here. What we will describe as her closing ‘Microsoft Word’ rant does pack a decent punch but by this stage the action has long since flatlined. Redford acts well within himself as a figurehead wheeled out for prestige (as both actor and character), Quaid is not given enough to work with and other than a momentary outburst, Topher Grace registers little as the principled, bearded ‘hippy’ of the pack.
A laughable slow-mo round of adulatory applause – accompanied by the killer blow of rousing strings to put us out of our misery – marks Rather falling on his sword. With a final address to the nation after a glittering career he states: “Reporting the truth means risking it all.” Far from taking any risks, Truth is not the biographical account Rather and Mapes deserved.
Matthew Anderson | @behind_theseens