24 hours ago I was nursing a vague suspicion that James Vanderbilt‘s Truth (Sony Pictures Classic, 10.16) might be a shortfaller or not-so-hotter of some kind. The advance word had been dicey, and then Sony Pictures Classics didn’t open it at Telluride, which struck several know-it-alls as curious. Then it screened last night in Toronto and everything changed. Now Truth is regarded as a major bulls-eye journalism drama and a likely (or certainly formidable) Best Picture contender.

An exacting, well-ordered account of the Rathergate episode of ’04, Truth is easily as good as Michael Mann‘s The Insider. It has the same kind of disciplined, upscale vibe.  It’s also a thematic equal of that 1999 drama as both are about real-life stories for CBS’s 60 Minutes that were challenged, watered-down or otherwise diminished by CBS corporates. Obviously not without fault in the case of Truth but still…

Cate Blanchett‘s flinty, tough-as-nails performance as former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes easily puts her into the Best Actress race (it actually nudges aside her Carol performance, incredible as that may sound). Robert Redford‘s performance as former CBS anchor-reporter Dan Rather is confined to a few scenes, but it’s one of the most pared-down and appealing things he’s done in a long time — he glows with dignity and grace. Costars Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, David Lyons and John Benjamin Hickey all deliver like champs.

It’s very unusual for a first-time director like Vanderbilt to display these kinds of chops, but that’s what he’s done here. The structure, timing, tension and pitch of this film are all spot-on. Mandy Walker‘s widescreen cinematography, the editing by Richard Francis-Bruce, Brian Tyler‘s score — all ace-level.

Pic is a dramatization of Mapes’ 2005 memoir “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” It’s basically about how and why Mapes and Rather lost their jobs in the wake of a 2004 60 Minutes report about a young George Bush having allegedly received preferential treatment in an attempt to duck military service in Vietnam.

This feel-bad journalism drama is also a kind of companion piece to Tom McCarthy‘s Spotlight, which is on the opposite end as everything in that Boston-based tale works out more or less positively, and journalistic reporting at least temporarily rights wrongs and malignant forces are embarassed or sent into hiding. Not so much with Truth, which starts intriguingly and then turns iffy and then dark, sad and finally tragic. The good guys (even if they shot themselves in the foot by sourcing the infamous Killian documents) lose and the bad guys win.

And yet Truth examines all aspects of this story from all sides. It’s not some kneejerk liberal defense of Mapes and Rather, although it’s clear to any fair-minded person that the story in question was essentially accurate.

When Truth opens next month you can bet that the nutter right will dive again into this controversial 60 Minutes segment and spread their usual bullshit. Aired on 9.8.04, the much-criticized, clearly flawed segment led to the resignation of Mapes and other CBS News producers and executives in its wake, and Rather the following year.

The segment 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 terrible strategy. And yet a week later Rather interviewed Marion Carr Knox, secretary of Lt. Col. Jerry 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 here is in what Ms. Knox says 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.

The righties will nonetheless assert that the entire segment was inaccurate or invented, and they will be dead wrong and/or lying through their teeth when they do that. Some of these very same rightwing dickheads have advance-trashed Truth on this site (particularly BadHatHarry) and predicted it would be problematic. They were absolutely dead wrong, either due to an insufficient brain-cell count or flat-out lying for the sake of a rightist agenda. In my eyes these fellows have eternally discredited themselves.

And I really don’t get why SPC played its cards close to its chest. By not debuting Truth in Telluride they seemed to suggest that they didn’t quite have a blue-ribbon award-season flick on their hands. SPC is famously bonded with Telluride. It’s always been the launch pad for their award-season ponies. And yet you they didn’t open Truth there. When I got to Telluride everyone was saying ‘why is SPC’s Telluride slate so weak this year?….just Son of Saul and nothing else?’

It turns out that Truth, which screened for buyers over three months ago, was only just finished last week. Apparently there was some last-minute vetting of facts going on. Either way SPC decided to play “hide the ball”, and now they’ve got a huge winner that everyone is surprised about. Brilliant game on their part. Brilliant but curious, I mean.