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Dan Rather, Mary Mapes and the 'Truth.'

'TRUTH': Robert Redford stars.
  • 'TRUTH': Robert Redford stars.

There was a time when televised national news came into American homes only once a day, at a set time. You had your choice of three major networks. At the anchor desk of each was a middle-aged, clean-shaven white man. When I was a child in the early 1980s, the only thing that differentiated the anchors was their accents.

It was Dan Rather's slight Texas drawl that brought foreign words and places and names — Sandinista, Grenada, Moammar Gadhafi — into my family's living room every evening. Dan Rather had come to national attention when, as a Dallas reporter, he first announced the news of President Kennedy's assassination, and he would become the long-running anchor for the "CBS Evening News," winning seven Peabody Awards along the way. By the time of Rather's fall from grace, in late 2004, I no longer paid any attention to the nightly news, and the storm was little more than a blip on my radar, yet another media dinosaur fallen prey to slack journalistic standards, new technology and the rise of infotainment.

The rough outline of Rathergate is this: In the lead-up to the 2004 presidential election, "60 Minutes" aired a piece by Rather and his team about then President George W. Bush's time with the Texas Air National Guard in the early 1970s. It accused Bush of using political connections to skip out on Vietnam and also claimed he had been AWOL for months. Rather's team presented documents that seemed to corroborate what had until then only been an Internet rumor. But in the days after the report aired, the veracity and provenance of the documents were called into question. Even though they could not be verified, Rather and his team, including his producer Mary Mapes, stood by the story even as it crumbled around them. By early 2005, Mapes had been fired and Rather had retired.

But that's not the full story, if the new movie "Truth" is to be believed. (It shouldn't be.) "Truth" is a creative retelling of the fall of Rather, and for the life of me, I can't figure out why this movie was made. In part, it feels like a rehab vehicle for Rather's tarnished image. And then at times, the movie is an overly pedantic screed against corporatism, for-profit media and the Bush political machine. And finally, it's an apology for sloppy journalism. 

That last one is always a bad idea. People will applaud a movie about great journalism (think "All the President's Men") and will abide movies about bad journalism so long as it lays the blame where it belongs (think "Shattered Glass"), but make a movie about egregious journalistic practices that then tries to sanctify the offenders, as "Truth" does? No way. Moviegoers will find it inauthentic, and journalists will find it offensive. Now you've offended both the audience and the reviewers.

All of which is why I wanted to describe "Truth" as a movie that shouldn't have been made, about a news story that shouldn't have been aired. But somehow, the movie kept me watching (although the only other person in the theater left halfway through). The narrative conceit — Mapes is retelling the story to her lawyer before facing an investigative panel — works. The movie is well directed, shot and paced. Even at 125 minutes, it does not feel flabby. But what makes the movie worth watching is Cate Blanchett, who pulls Mapes from behind the scenes and places her at the heart of the movie. I almost found myself siding with her scrappy, bully-hating, stick-to-your-guns, working mother. Almost. And Stacy Keach, who plays Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, the source of the discredited documents, should get a mention here, too. "Truth," like any other movie, could have been made better with more screen time from Keach. 

As much as it pains me to say it, Robert Redford is the weak link in this movie. There was not a moment when I felt like I was watching Dan Rather, or even an actor portraying Rather. Redford's portrayal of Rather felt more like a reprisal of his decades-old role as Bob Woodward, minus the integrity and enthusiasm.

But don't you worry about Redford. I hear he's signed on to play Brian Williams in a new movie. Apparently, he gets to fly a helicopter and save the world. It's got Oscar written all over it.

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