Film & TV

Rewind, Review, and Re-Rate: 2015’s ‘Truth’: Uncovering George W. Bush’s Alleged Vietnam Combat-Ducking ‘Strategery’

BY Mark Jackson TIMEJune 4, 2022 PRINT

Truth” is a newsroom thriller about the crack team of reporters who tracked the paper trail that determined whether George W. Bush shirked his Vietnam War military duties or not. It also depicts how much journalism has lost its bite since 1970s superstar Robert Redford played Watergate superstar reporter Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men” 46 years ago. Here, Redford plays super-anchor Dan Rather.

The Heart of the Matter

It begins with a CBS “60 Minutes” episode, where award-winning producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) has host Dan Rather (Redford) talk about the military records of Bush the Younger, (nicknamed, to differentiate him from his father, for his middle initial).

woman in grey jacket in TRUTH
Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), in “Truth.” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

Dubya, during the Vietnam draft, had landed an exceedingly sweet assignment in the Texas Air National Guard, apparently reserved for the privileged pups of powerful political pops. But junior, regardless, apparently couldn’t handle the light duty.

He played hooky, blew off mandatory testing without comeuppance, went AWOL, and ultimately got out early, thereby avoiding combat. How? As Will Ferrell doing a Dubya impression might have put it—with … “strategery” [strə-tee-jər-ee]. In other words, he had strings pulled for him. Or so it’s claimed.

Mapes puts together a world-class team of journalists: Topher Grace’s brilliant, hypercommitted, feathering-the-edge-of-conspiracy reporter; Dennis Quaid’s avuncular, former-military tough guy; and Elisabeth Moss’s moral-compass ethics expert.

men and women watching TV in TRUTH
(L–R) Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Josh Howard (David Lyons), Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Mary Murphy (Natalie Saleeba), Tom (Adam Saunders), Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), in “Truth.” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

What follows is a first-rate journalism clinic that moves at a riveting clip as the investigative team, with much quipping, take to their respective wheelhouses and build the case, à la trail-sniffing, educated-guessing, lead-following, phone-calling, on-and-off-the-record reporting, and so on. A long string of cold calls all end with the person on the other end of the line stating vehemently, “No strings were pulled!”

Uh-Oh …

But once the story breaks, the whole enterprise gets immediately lit up by the blogosphere’s razor-sharp minds and acerbic tongues, some of whom, naturally, have political agendas. The team got sloppy due to deadlines, put all their money on a key-evidence memo that happens to be a faxed copy with no original, which right-wing bloggers and Rupert Murdoch’s media machine have a field day claiming is fake. This questionable memo also came from a source who refused to be named (Stacy Keach).

two man and cork board in TRUTH
Dan Rather (Robert Redford, L) and Louis Boccardi (Lewis Fitz-Gerald), in “Truth” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

Which of course sets off frenzied backtracking and fact checking, with irate bosses breathing down the team’s collective neck. But, ultimately, the whole endeavor hinged on their having put all their eggs in one basket, and then the handle broke. Sneaking an internet peek, Mapes is emotionally bludgeoned by cries of “Gut the witch!”

man and woman watch TV in TRUTH
Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Mike Smith (Topher Grace), horrified, watch the news, in “Truth.” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

At the Top of Her Game

The “Let’s nail Bush” and the ensuing “Now let’s get the nail out of our own foot” parts are the overt storyline, but the movie is actually, really about Mary Mapes—mother, wife, and intense hunter-killer investigative reporter. She’d blown the Abu Ghraib scandal sky-high, was at the top of her game, and had a great deal to lose.

Since the screenplay (written by top-notch, first-time director James Vanderbilt) is based on Mapes’s book, the story is naturally skewed to her take on things. One could also argue that, seeing as how the movie masthead is known tree-hugger Robert Redford (said with respect and affection), there might be a somewhat liberal interpretation of the turn of events.

man and woman in dressing room in TRUTH
Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dan Rather (Robert Redford), in “Truth.” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

Mapes and Rather are shown, if somewhat glibly, to have an ersatz father-daughter relationship, as Mapes’s actual father was a ruthless physical and verbal abuser.

One of the film’s most powerful scenes is when the normally fire-breathing Mapes gears up to lambaste her bullying dad on the phone for publicly dragging her name through the mud, accusing her of radical feminism, only to revert instantaneously to her cowering, tiny inner child. It’s heartbreaking, and really should have resulted in an Oscar nomination for Blanchett.

man and woman in boardroom in TRUTH
Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and Dick Hibey (Andrew McFarlane), in “Truth.” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

Toward the end, there’s a CBS-ordered, let’s-cover-our-behinds legal panel: Mapes and her lawyer staring down an entire law firm of lethal, honey-tongued litigators. The ensuing one-woman, collective pile driving of this intimidating predator pack is highly satisfying.

Redford’s Roles Show Journalism’s Decline

Robert Redford appeared at a forum sponsored by The New York Times, coinciding approximately with the release date of “Truth.” The Huffington Post’s Stephen Schlesinger reported:

“Redford pointed out that when he played Bob Woodward in ‘All The President’s Men,’ Woodward always had the backing of the Washington Post editor, Ben Bradlee, even when he made occasional mistakes during his Watergate investigation. This support enabled Woodward … to track down the full details of the Watergate burglary, despite withering criticism, leading to the downfall of President Richard Nixon.”

He goes on to say that there was no such luck regarding Rather and Mapes’s errors. The errors didn’t actually detract from their story’s essence, but their bosses at CBS nevertheless hung them out to dry. Dan Rather himself, also on the panel, said that the pressure on CBS came straight from the Bush administration.

Courage

Dan Rather gave his blessing to “Truth” as being an accurate portrayal, saying that while journalism’s info-gathering process can often be a “crude art,” it doesn’t detract from the overall truth. Tracking down the dangerous but morally imperative truth, takes—as Dan Rather famously liked to conclude his news shows—”courage.”

two men and a woman in TRUTH
(L–R) Dan Rather (Robert Redford), Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), and Andrew Heyward (Bruce Greenwood), in “Truth” (Lisa Tomasetti/Sony Pictures Classics)

However, movies such as “Truth” tend to be highly politically charged and have complicated backgrounds. For more insights, read Minneapolis attorney Scott W. Johnson’s article. Regarding “Rather-gate,” it’s likely the case that, when it came to the truth, multiple cases of strategery existed.

‘Truth’
Director: James Vanderbilt
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, Stacy Keach, Dermot Mulroney
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 5 minutes
Release Date: Oct. 16, 2015
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Mark Jackson
Film Critic
Mark Jackson is the senior film critic for The Epoch Times. Mark has 20 years' experience as a professional New York actor, classical theater training, and a BA in philosophy. He recently narrated the Epoch Times audiobook “How the Specter of Communism is Ruling Our World,” and has a Rotten Tomatoes author page.
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