The truth, so the old adage goes, will set you free. Not so for CBS 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) who found herself in the middle of an ethical and political maelstrom when she aired a 2004 story questioning then-President George W Bush’s Air National Guard service record. It included as evidence two military documents which, it transpires, may not have been authentic; a fact which resulted in a public investigation and the loss of jobs for many of those involved, including long-time anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford)
The rousing screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) – who also makes a strong directorial debut – is based on Mapes’ own book, and that he regards her a crusader for the democratic process is further underscored by the swelling score and A-list casting. Despite his obvious bias, however, Vanderbilt brings a sense of balance; Mapes’ personal and professional history casts an unavoidable shadow over her motivations, one that can only be banished by meticulous examination of the facts. This level of narrative detail is something Vanderbilt clearly relishes, the richness of his writing turning the story of a paper trail into an exhilarating, emotional quest for justice.
The sheer volume of information means that much of the dialogue feels exposition-heavy, but the performances ensure it never becomes sluggish. While Elisabeth Moss is woefully underused, Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace are great as the other members of Mapes’ research team and to Grace belongs one of the film’s best scenes, in which he throws furious light on the extent to which CBS is in thrall to the Bush administration. Redford, too, is perfect as the stoical Rather, echoes of previous films like Lions For Lambs and All the President’s Men adding extra weight to his performance.
This is, however, Blanchett’s film and she is sublime. While some elements of her character are narratively heavy-handed, such as the parallels between her relationship with her father and her determination to question authority, she rises above such flaws to deliver a subtle, nuanced performance. She may portray a woman determined to hold her own against a system campaigning to silence her but she is no martyr; the fight takes its toll and, as Mapes feels the full force of public disgrace, her resolve falters. She may be a strong, influential and successful professional woman, but she is also decidedly, sympathetically human.
Indeed the fact that she is a woman operating in such a male-dominated arena informs parts of the narrative – a sequence in which she discovers vile, gender-specific comments on an internet forum will ring painful bells with any woman who dares voice her opinion in public – but it doesn’t soapbox on gender issues. Instead, the film calls into question the viability of democratic, bipartisan journalism in an age in which to challenge the status quo is to be scrutinised and vilified. So, while it may be awards-season filmmaking at its most conventional, as a eulogy for independent newsgathering Truth has an undeniable power.
This review was originally published at The List