It was the great Henry David Thoreau who once said, “Rather than love, than money, than fame, give me truth.” And it’s the Thoreauian tenets of self-reliance—the pursuit of unvarnished truth and resistance to institutional authority—that motivates many in the journalism profession. If James Vanderbilt’s new film Truth is to be believed, this quest led 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes and veteran CBS News anchor Dan Rather to air the segment “For the Record,” which questioned then-President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. The controversial 60 Minutes piece aired on September 8, 2004, just two months before the presidential election, and ultimately led to the dismissals of Mapes, several other producers, and Rather forced into an early retirement.
Vanderbilt’s film is based on Mapes’s memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and The Privilege of Power, so it provides a very sympathetic portrait of Rather (Robert Redford, charming) and his longtime producer Mapes (Cate Blanchett, electric).
The action opens in April 2004, with the chummy team of Mapes and Rather—she calls him “Dad,” he treats her like a daughter, reminding her to eat when she’s stressed—receiving acclaim for the airing of their exclusive 60 Minutes segment detailing torture and prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. Mapes, daughter to an abusive father, is portrayed as an intrepid firebrand eager for a juicy Dubya story to follow up the Abu Ghraib bombshell. She first looks into the bin Laden family’s ties to George H.W. Bush’s Arbusto, before setting her sights on Bush Jr.’s sketchy record in the Texas Air National Guard during Vietnam. Mapes assembles a crack team including a colonel (Dennis Quaid), a professor (Elisabeth Moss), a researcher (Topher Grace), and Rather, assuming a hands-off role.
Then, what she calls a big piece of juicy “brisket” falls in her lap: Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach), a former Texas Army National Guardsman, hands Mapes documents purportedly drafted by Bush’s commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, criticizing Bush’s service record and insinuating that he did not fulfill his 6-year commitment to the Guard.
Burkett tells Mapes he received the documents from Chief Warrant Officer George Conn of the Texas Air National Guard, who acquired them from Killian’s personal files. With all the documents in by September 4, and the piece—at Mapes’s behest—set to air on September 8, the team rushes to corroborate the claims. They interview former Lt. Gov. of Texas Ben Barnes, who claims he personally recommended Bush for the TexANG; Killian’s pal Robert Strong, who ran the TexANG administrative office and says the letters seem consistent with Killian’s beliefs; and Mapes dictates the contents of the letters by phone to General Bobby Hodges, Killian’s superior at the time, who corroborates their content. Then, they enlist the services of four document experts to examine the content of the Killian letters. One expresses doubts about the proportional spacing and superscripted “th” of the letters but says she can’t confirm without the originals, one says her findings are inconclusive, and two confirm that the signatures on the documents match Killian’s.
Unfortunately, since the original documents don’t exist there’s no way to fully authenticate the faxed docs, and with the airdate looming, there wasn’t enough time to establish a chain of custody. The segment airs on 60 Minutes, and as soon as the gang’s done celebrating, the blogosphere erupts with claims that the Killian docs are forgeries, alleging that the spacing, font, superscript, etc. were all compatible with a document created using the current version of Microsoft Word. Mapes and Rather stand by the report, even producing follow-up segments defending the original piece, but the president of CBS News, Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood), is very skeptical. His fears are stoked when Burkett admits to lying about who gave him the documents, claiming that a Hispanic woman handed them off to him. In one chilling sequence, Mapes is seen browsing conservative websites online, with trolls branding her a “feminazi” and “ugly,” and one anonymous poster writing, “I’m picturing Sean Hannity sharpening his knife to gut this witch.”
The devil is in the details, as they say, and though the documents themselves may be falsified, both Mapes and Rather view them as more a piece of corroborative evidence, and continue to believe in the general veracity of the story—which isn’t questioned. Nevertheless, CBS brass orders Rather to issue a public apology on-air for the story.
A CBS-appointed panel to review the 60 Minutes segment is depicted in the film as the final insult, a show trial of sorts co-led by Dick Thornburgh, who served as Attorney General under Bush Sr. In another telling scene which is sure to rattle CBS, Topher Grace’s researcher experiences a Jerry Maguire-esque meltdown, accusing CBS of caving in to the demands of their parent company Viacom, who’ve targeted this story under pressure from the White House in order to curry favor with the administration. “You think Viacom wants the administration on their side?” he asks (more like tells).
Mapes is seen as a victim in all this—both of Burkett’s ruse and of the CBS brass, who throw her directly under the bus. The film’s finest scene sees Blanchett deliver a blistering monologue to the Thornburgh review panel detailing how difficult it would be to and how much inside information would be required to falsify the Killian documents.
And Rather, generally shown to be a charming, loyal, and caring man with paternal love for Mapes—and a bit of a whiskey addiction—is let off the hook, merely going with the flow and doing what Mapes tells him. At the end of the film, after her firing and Rather’s forced retirement, she asks him, “Why didn’t you ask me if the documents are real?” He tenderly replies, “Because I knew I didn’t need to.”
Vanderbilt’s film, boasting brisk pacing and a powerhouse performance by Blanchett, is meant to serve as both a cultural corrective to Rather’s tainted legacy—a blunder referred to by the press as Rathergate, and by Karl Rove, whom Terry McAuliffe believes planted the docs, as “the gift that keeps on giving”—and an examination of the complex web of newsgathering required to substantiate a major story.
In a 2007 interview with Larry King, Rather claimed “he played largely a supervisory role” in the Bush segment, that the review panel was “a set-up,” and that “Nobody to this day has proved these documents were fraudulent… The story was true.” And in his 2012 memoir Rather Outspoken: My Life in the News, the newsman claimed that internal CBS documents show Viacom lobbyist Carol Melton—under pressure from GOP House Majority Whip Roy Blunt—urged Heyward to retract the Bush/TexANG story, and that “Melton made it clear that Blunt was speaking for an even more powerful constituency—the White House.” Rather also fired a shot at then (and current) CBS honcho Les Moonves (who is not mentioned by name in the film), writing, “We did not retract the story, nor should we have. But that was the way that Blunt and the White House wanted it, and Moonves chose to oblige.”
After the film’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Rather choked up discussing Truth in a post-screening Q&A. He called Vanderbilt’s film “very accurate,” and, when asked by an audience member if there’s anything in his career he would have done differently, he replied, “Journalism is not an exact science.”