The title of Truth—writer/director James Vanderbilt's dramatization of the controversy surrounding 60 Minutes' 2004 story about President George W. Bush's Texas Air National Guard Service, by way of producer Mary Mapes' memoir—feels like it should be spoken with an exclamation point. You can almost hear Tom Cruise saying it the way he does before Jack Nicholson's famous monologue from A Few Good Men, brimming with righteousness.
Except this movie doesn't understand the ways in which that righteousness is misplaced. That's because the entire underlying premise of Truth is cued to the audience by its title: that "what actually happened" is all that really matters. Journalists were called on the carpet for the way they gathered and vetted their story, but only "the truth" should have been relevant. That premise is so false that it becomes virtually impossible to take seriously anything that Truth tries to say.
Vanderbilt does a perfectly effective job of setting the stage for Bush's tightly contested 2004 re-election battle with John Kerry, where anything might tip the balance one way or the other. Into that fray tread Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and her research team—Mike Smith (Topher Grace), Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid)—when they get a bombshell tip. Retired Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach) claims to have documents that prove Bush was AWOL from his National Guard posting, which will be tied into a story—anchored by CBS News veteran Dan Rather (Robert Redford)—showing that the Bush family used political connections to keep George W. out of Vietnam.
That story eventually blows up in everyone's face as questions arise over the authenticity of Burkett's documents, Burkett's reliability and that of another source who backtracks after initially seeming to verify the documents' authenticity. The bulk of Truth becomes a story about the fallout, as CBS News scurries to cover its ass and other media outlets pile on the allegations of shoddy journalism initiated by conservative bloggers.
Mapes is at the center of it all, and Vanderbilt has trouble shaping a consistent characterization. Blanchett is effective at conveying Mapes' bulldog tenacity, but there's an uneven attempt to incorporate her history as a survivor of childhood physical abuse by her bullying father. It's even more puzzling when we watch Mapes reacting with pearl-clutching alarm at seeing threats and insults directed at her in comments on conservative websites—an oddly naïve response, given that she had already produced a story revealing the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
The larger problem with Truth is that it never really confronts the allegations of journalistic sloppiness as worthy of legitimate concern. In one of the film's most intriguing bits of background, we watch as Mapes is forced by the network's schedule to choose between rushing the story into a slot just days away, or waiting until too close to the election. The decision to go with the former option results in bad choices regarding putting the report together—we see Mapes, due to time constraints, ax an interview with one of the experts who supports the documents' authenticity—yet despite the number of speeches we get from people lamenting the fate of hard journalism in the face of corporate concerns, Truth doesn't take on the potentially enlightening premise of, "Yeah, the story was a botched job, but here's why, and why that matters."
Instead, the narrative is built on the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy—and while that conspiracy absolutely exists, in this case, it's a dodge. The film's references to the Swift Boat Veterans attacks that damaged John Kerry's campaign are relevant, because they demonstrate what's supposed to be the difference between real journalism and a smear campaign: the almost scientific dedication to results that can be duplicated. Truth ignores that journalism is built on the saying that also applies to prosecutors: It doesn't matter what you know, it matters what you can prove.
The title alone demonstrates a focus completely different from what it might have been had the title been, say, Proof. When it comes to understanding that journalism demands a higher standard, Vanderbilt can't handle the truth.