I’ve decided to be the official mediator between Awards Daily‘s Sasha Stone and The Hollywood Reporter‘s Scott Feinberg regarding their dispute about James Vanderbilt‘s Truth (Sony Pictures Classics, 10.16), which ignited yesterday. What actually happened is that Feinberg, who saw Truth in Toronto, attacked the film — a curiously aggressive response four weeks before the opening, not to mention that Feinberg mostly focuses on analysis and trend-spotting. This prompted Stone, who saw and loved it in Los Angeles around the same time, to attack Feinberg. I tumbled for Truth in Toronto and am frankly more on Stone’s side of the fence in this matter, but I can be fair-minded when the occasion requires.
The film is a dramatization of Mary Mapes’ 2005 memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” It’s basically about how and why Mapes (Cate Blanchett) and legendary CBS anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) lost their jobs in the wake of a poorly sourced but nonetheless accurate 2004 60 Minutes report about a young George W. Bush having allegedly received preferential treatment in an attempt to duck military service in Vietnam.
The pro-Truth Stone believes that the film passes along a comprehensive and justifiably damning portrait of corporate cowardice on the part of CBS after the infamous 60 Minutes Killian documents story blew up in late ’04. She points out that if Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee had acted similarly — if he had thrown Woodward and Bernstein under the bus when their story about H.R. Haldeman being named in Grand Jury testimony as the fifth White House official to control the Nixon re-relection team’s slush fund was attacked for being false (even though Haldeman was the fifth official to control the fund) — the All The President’s Men saga would have been quite different.
The anti-Truth Feinberg believes that the film errs in trying to portray Mapes and Rather as flawed heroes, and that it’s too hard on CBS and not hard enough on Mapes, whom he believes didn’t do her job properly and deserved to be canned. He believes that “a narrative motion picture was probably the wrong format in which to re-litigate this saga…ironically, it feels more fitting for a segment on 60 Minutes…[it] just doesn’t quite ring true.”
Like any prudent pro-level journalist, Feinberg subscribes to a standard T.C.Y.A. approach — totally cover your ass — when it comes to researching and reporting stories. Ben Bradlee, Jr., whom I spoke to at the Spotlight party, has the exact same view. So does the Daily Beast‘s Marlow Stern and, I’m sure, many other top-tier journos. But the movie I saw doesn’t try to give Mapes and Rather a total pass. It makes it clear that they failed to be careful enough regarding the Killian memos, but also that they were fucked by lying or recanting sources.
But Truth is also (and, I would argue, more importantly) about how CBS News management all too quickly cut them loose when the heat came down.
The point of Truth is not that Mapes and Rather were blameless (the film makes clear there were reasonable suspicions that the Killian memos might not be legitimate), but that CBS management was craven and spineless in their handling of the matter. I think that Truth is a brilliant gray-area film that delineates all the particulars and allows the viewer to come to his/her own conclusions. It is scrupulous, exacting and very well ordered. Its claim about CBS honchos having been expedient and gutless feels reasonable and perceptive to me.
Does the film stand behind Mapes and Rather? Yeah, pretty much, and for the simple reason that the content of their 60 Minutes story was true. Just as the disputed Haldeman story was true even though Woodstein’s Washington Post story was technically wrong because nobody asked former Nixon campaign official Hugh Sloan whether Haldeman was involved. Bad reporting is bad reporting, of course, but the truth is the truth.
The disputed 60 Minutes segment, aired on 9.8.04, explored former President George W. Bush‘s dubious record of military service in the early ’70s, and leaned heavily on documents that allegedly came from the files of Bush’s commanding officer, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian. They claimed that young Bush, then in his late 20s, swaggered around like an entitled fratboy and at one point disobeyed a direct order to take a physical.
The documents had been delivered to CBS from former Texas Army National Guard Lt. Colonel Bill Burkett. Soon after the airing it was determined that the documents had been forged. There’s no question that using illegitimate documents to support a news story is a bogus way to play it. And yet a week later Rather interviewed Marion Carr Knox, secretary of Lt. Col. Killian, and Ms. Knox said two things: (1) the memos shown by 60 Minutes on September 8, 2004 are not authentic and yet (2) the content of the documents was accurate.
The key defense or explanation is contained in what Ms. Knox said in the above Rather interview. Credible journalism should never lean on a “bad documents, accurate story” rationale, but this was one of those times when such an explanation carried weight.
Feinberg: “In short, Truth selectively recounts a series of events that were terribly unfortunate — they cost two smart, hard-working and accomplished people their jobs, haunted Mapes enough to write a book about them and caused Rather to tear up at the film’s premiere. But the fact is that top-tier CBS journalists should have known what even a street gangster on The Wire managed to figure out: ‘When you come at the king, you best not miss.’ They came at ‘the king,’ they missed — not entirely, but more than they should have — and they paid a price for that.”
Stone: “Feinberg says he feels an affection and allegiance toward 60 Minutes because he once toured the studio when he was in junior high, thanks to a family connection. This is part of his explanation for why he felt it necessary, before Truth has even opened, to launch the first of what is sure to be many assaults on the film from the right — and apparently from the left as well.
“This is how it goes now. Too many people covering this race, too many people trying to claim a slice of the pie, and before long every daring and provocative movie is savaged and attacked until there is nothing left but the most blandly inoffensive films — because no one can complain about them. Usually, though, this sort of thing happens a little later in the game. Truth, after all, hasn’t even been reviewed by any major outlets. But apparently it is not too soon for The Hollywood Reporter.
“The truth of it is that Mapes had been working on this story for five years prior to the airing of the 60 Minutes segment, which is proof in itself that the story existed with or without the questionable documents. She had two sources do an about-face when the shit came down because they were — say it with me now — pressured to do so.
“Yes, this was a mistake, and CBS should probably not have run with the story. But what happened afterward, how Mary Mapes was subsequently treated, how 60 Minutes reacted and made her the scapegoat, is what Truth is ultimately about.
“Mapes had only one thing on her side, the truth. What did she have against her? The internet and all that it has done to help kill journalism in every way imaginable. This story of Mapes and Rather can, in fact, be seen as the final death rattle.
“The question that needed to be asked was: is the story true? That is what Woodstein believed and why they kept searching for more. If you cut the story off at the first mistake? Well, how can you ever get to the truth?”