Director: James Vanderbilt
Writer: James Vanderbilt
Cinematographer: Mandy Walker
by Susan Bartley
On the one end you had Spotlight go on to take Best Picture, exploring the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church pedophilia scandal. It was an incredible picture, though as Bret Easton Ellis mentioned, it wasn’t the most cinematic picture, playing more like an HBO or Showtime film. As great as the film was, I was re-watching it and its effect was greatly diminished. Having been in gross ignorance of the entire scandal, and being absolutely floored and terrified by the films concluding credits highlighting cities across the world that dealt with a high volume of abuse cases, all while sitting in a packed theater, I was proud to see it win Best Picture for how important the story was (though, again, The Revenant will go down as a Great American Film and should have won the statute for its phenomenal level of craft that pushed the boundaries of cinema). I direct everyone to check out All the Presidents Men, The Killing Fields, or The Insider to see how you can indeed take a serious and sensitive subject and make it cinematic.
So while Spotlight played as a good HBO movie, Truth played like a Hallmark film. The story involves the CBS 60 Minutes’ team botched investigation of George W. Bush’s going AWOL during National Guard service, after receiving alleged forged documents, facing severe legal action as a consequence. The first half of this film has some of the worst directing I’ve ever seen in my life, in which James Vanderbilt seemed utterly incapable of covering any scene beyond a series of close ups. In fact, when he finally does go into a wide, the blocking was so generic that I called what they were going to do.
For example, in wide, you had researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace) lying on the couch, playing catch with himself, with Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) in the foreground on the phone, and Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid) entering the room. I knew, for reasons of seeing this so many times, that Mike would start talking about food, “Pizza sounds good. Yeah… I think I want pizza” is the original line Topher was given or approved by the writer who gave us Zodiac. I then knew Charles would of course catch the ball out of Topher's hands and the scene would cut. It was the Hollywood version of opening a film school short with an alarm clock going off. Again, Vanderbilt wrote one of the 00s greatest films (Zodiac), but that in no way means he was equipped to get behind the camera. For the first half, each scene felt flat and uninspired.
In another absurd sequence, when the news team writes about a dozen names on the board of people to contact to corroborate the scandal, Vanderbilt takes us into a montage of phones hanging up, angry responses, generic answers, sitting on the ground in a dark office, and all the frustrations you’d expect from not getting anyone on the line. Only problem is, because every single person was unwilling to talk, there was absolutely no tension. This all could have been done in a single shot. The team tried calling, the person did or didn’t answer, then they'd move onto the next one. For crossing off twelve names on a whiteboard this was the most elaborate montage for a sequence that resulted in nothing. Better, they could have just fast forwarded the narrative, started from having eleven of the names crossed out, explaining why, and saying, “Yeah, we couldn’t get anyone else on the line except this one person.” Boom - five minutes saved.
So after I was nearly bored out of mind, and only continued to watch the film because I had the strange opportunity to sit in first class on a trip back from Germany with endless wine and a strange affinity for Investigative Journalism pieces and nothing else looking too good, I figured I’d see where it went. It does get better, especially once we discover that the documents could have been forged. Except again - and this is more a criticism of the history than film - the idea that no one realized that the Times New Roman font could be recreated in Microsoft Word from the time when the document was written was so enraging that I really didn’t care to root for the characters. Additionally, the fact that we don’t know whether or not the documents were ever genuine makes it all the more enraging, especially since the film takes an opinion that left a bad taste in my mouth. If we learned in the end that they were real that would have been fine. But in a sequence involving Mary Mapes before a Corporate Lawyer Team, reviewing her conduct, she gives an in depth answer about why she thinks she was right. Only problem is - we never know if she was, and so the film editorializes the issue, essentially and indirectly defending their actions, when in fact, we have no idea whether or not it was true.
The film does get into interesting explorations of journalistic ethics, providing an interesting glimpse into why the last nonpartisan name in news finally fell. Similar to The Insider, which is difficult to even put in the same sentence as this film, is the idea of corporate control of media. In a scene that's interesting in theory but was cringey in practice, Mike Smith returns to the office to get his things, facing an Executive Producer who threatens to kick him out, leading Smith to unleash a diatribe about the endless corporate mergers and control of media, with a pending piece of legislation that would cut into their profits (possibly at risk due to the scandal), pending approval by Bush, which was actually interesting, though completely and wildly out of place, and felt like a forced moment where Vanderbilt was able to inject his own insights into the media-political machine, without really having much motivation. If we deconstruct this a bit, who would Mike be talking to in this case, other than the viewers, since the EP doesn’t give a shit and wants him out, and everyone else in the office is probably aware of the deal, thus creating a strange breaking of the fourth wall without looking directly into the camera.
We then have Cate Blancett enter into breakdown mode, which if it weren’t for her power as an actress, would have been equally cringey, though it comes fairly close as she starts drinking and letting her hair go, and after she gets on the phone with her abusive father who accuses her of being a liberally biased feminist, to which she responds with something along the lines of “Please daddy, please stop doing this” (emphasis on the word ‘daddy’, which also felt out of place). I’m sure the stress and frustration was in earnest, but something about it felt inappropriate in the narrative. Nevertheless, Blanchett’s performance is the best part of the film.
In the end, we don’t know if the documents were forged. Instead we receive an incredibly liberal slant to the material, which is a bit hypocritical given that the film criticizes any accusations of liberal bias. It was a look into a controversy that I knew little about, and hate that my belief about Bush’s AWOLness was uncorroborated, and still hasn’t been and therefore continues to be perpetuated by liberal bias. I appreciate the film’s mission in supporting journalism’s mission to ask questions and find the truth. Unfortunately, for a film that criticizes critical individuals, battling against some grand conspiracy which is never really supported, the pride of neutrality is portrayed in a film that fails to achieve neutrality. If Mary Mapes pride that she could do no wrong with Rathers at her side was a bit more fair minded, rather than celebrating her as some type of righteous crusader, I could have enjoyed the film. As is, I saw someone that made a serious mistake, right or wrong.
BELOW: For anyone that's forgotten the scandal, here's the 60 Minutes segment
Thoughts on films, old and new
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