In “Truth,” Cate Blanchett plays the television journalist Mary Mapes, who, in 2004 — just weeks before the presidential election — produced a controversial “60 Minutes II” segment on President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Within hours of the story’s airing, it came under attack, with accusations of document forgeries and slipshod reporting culminating in Mapes’s termination and Dan Rather’s resignation from the network he had personified for decades.
Adapted from Mapes’s memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power,” “Truth” recreates that sickening episode with the clenched, stomach-churning dread of watching someone’s professional life implode. Having written the screenplay for the journalistic thriller “Zodiac,” first-time director James Vanderbilt does an impressive job of keeping the screws turning, adroitly shifting from the giddy thrill of the chase (at one point Mapes refers to a hot lead as “a juicy piece of brisket”) to the thudding sense of doom that sets in when the story begins to unravel.
“Truth” also does a good job of establishing the stakes of a story that was positioned to impact the presidential election. Although the story that Bush (and other sons of prominent Texas politicians) received preferential treatment during the Vietnam War had been kicked around for years, Mapes didn’t get her hands on a paper trail — in the form of revealing internal memos from the Guard — until 2004, just as the Swift Boat attacks on Bush rival John Kerry were heating up.
Aided by a dedicated team of researchers played by Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and a sorely underused Elisabeth Moss, Mapes and Rather — here portrayed with uncanny vocal if not visual verisimilitude by Robert Redford — eagerly jump on what looks like an investigative coup. Earning her place alongside Bette Davis as one of the screen’s great tragediennes, Blanchett portrays Mapes as a headstrong if somewhat neurotic figure, the scarred daughter of an abusive father who has clearly cast Rather in a compensatory surrogate role. As the story starts to go south — when the photocopied memos come under question and her sources begin to wobble — her horror can be read in every excruciating detail, from her aghast scowl to her birdlike frame hunched defensively under a protective sweater.
Set in the hushed confines of editing rooms and network executive suites, “Truth” harks back to the kind of stylish, understated storytelling of the “All the President’s Men” era, an echo clearly intended by Redford, who has championed investigative journalism since playing The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward in that movie. But “Truth” doesn’t completely earn the comparison, if only because, in its uncritical embrace of Mapes’s belief in her own victimization, it fails to present a far more nuanced picture.
Even if logic and evidence suggest that the story was true all along, the fact remains that she and Rather botched its telling by rushing it, ignoring the concerns of document authenticators and risking their careers on a shaky source. Sidestepping those realities, “Truth” instead presents Mapes and her team as martyrs to a shadowy political-corporate cabal and an aggressively partisan Web culture that was just beginning to rear its toxic head. This may be the truth as Mapes and Rather see it; indeed, it’s possible for several things to be true at the same time. But as a film, “Truth” would have been more compelling with less sanctimony and tougher self-examination.
R. At area theaters. Contains brief obscenity and a brief nude photo. 121 minutes.