Like most conservatives, I must confess to a bit of schadenfreude over the utter failure of Truth.
Based on box office receipts, audiences have completely rejected the Robert Redford drama, which is based on Dan Rather’s failed (and fraudulent) “expose” of George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. According to Box Office Mojo, Truth has grossed barely $1 million since its limited opening in mid-October and fared poorly in its first weekend of wide release. On its current trajectory, the film won’t even recoup its modest marketing budget, let alone production costs.
And better yet, some of the reviews have been scathing. From The Atlantic, not exactly a house organ of the Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy:
“..Late in the movie Truth, the former 60 Minutes Wednesday producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett) offers a Big Speech about the state of journalism, decrying the fact that all that people want to read or watch on television these days is “conspiracy theories.” The irony apparently lost on her (or at least on the writer-director James Vanderbilt) is that she makes this charge while she herself is in the midst of presenting a conspiracy theory.
The film concerns 60 Minutes’s 2004 pre-election reporting on George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard. Two documents central to the news program’s contention that Bush was granted preferential treatment were subsequently revealed to be almost certainly fraudulent. This error ultimately resulted in the retirement from CBS of Dan Rather (played here with likable understatement by Robert Redford) and the firing of Mapes and others. It’s in the midst of her “conspiracy theory” speech that Mapes suggests that the fraudulent documents were a cunning ploy by pro-Bush forces—immaculately sophisticated in some respects, but childishly certain to be recognized as fake in others—intended to discredit further reporting into his military record. Could this be true? Stranger things have happened, I suppose. But it’s pretty much the definition of a conspiracy theory.
This is, alas, of a piece with Truth, one of the worst films about journalism (and there have been plenty of bad ones) to come down the pike in a long while. The movie loudly, hectoringly stresses the importance of always “asking questions”—my notes include, among others, the lines “Questions help us get to the truth,” “You stop asking questions, that’s when the American people lose,” and “You’re supposed to question everything, that’s your job”—and yet the very quality it celebrates in its protagonist is that she never questions whether or not her reporting might have been wrong. This is a film in which acknowledging error is treated as some terrible surrender and betrayal of trust; in actual journalism, it’s considered a moral obligation—one that, sadly, most people in the field have had some experience with, in one capacity or another.
Similar thoughts from The Oregonian, another MSM outlet that should not be confused with say, National Review:
“The less obvious reason is “Truth” wants to be a movie like “All the President’s Men” or the upcoming “Spotlight” that shows journalists fighting powerful interests in pursuit of a story that could change history. They lost — but it wasn’t their fault. It was the Internet — those pesky bloggers distracting everyone with their obsession with fonts and superscript — or it was a conspiracy between Viacom and the White House, or both. The Bush administration was furious at Rather and Mapes for breaking the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal, reporting that won a Peabody Award after they were gone from CBS, and wanted to get even.
But it was their fault. Rather, by all accounts, was detached, uninvolved in the reporting process until the end. Mapes and her team felt under competitive pressure and didn’t do enough to verify the documents or their sources. The reporting was sloppy under any circumstances; on such a crucial piece, it is inexcusable.”
Beyond the fatal flaws of the film (and its underlying “story”) there are elementary questions that bear asking. Namely, why would any studio–in this case, Sony–elect to spend millions on a film that is based on lies and bound to fail? Why would Hollywood “A” list talent (led by Robert Redford as Rather and Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes) sign on to such a project? And for that matter, why did a couple of publishing houses give Ms. Mapes hefty advances for the hard copy and paperback editions of her book, which serves as the basis for the film?
The answers, of course, lie in the politics of the news business and the entertainment industry. Needless to say, there aren’t any conservatives on the creative team that gave us Truth, and I’m guessing registered Republicans are a closeted minority in the executive suite at Sony Pictures, which released the film. For members of those groups, George W. Bush is still a target of opportunity; after all, he stole the 2000 presidential election from Al Gore; helped arrange the 9-11 attacks and used falsified intelligence to send us into Iraq. Surely those rumors about Bush using family connections to join the Texas Air National Guard (and avoid service in Vietnam) must be true. And if you believe all that, it only stands to reason that Mr. Bush would avoid fulfilling his ANG service obligations.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a speck of real evidence to back up the guard story. Ms. Mapes reporteldy began pursuing the story in 1999, before Bush entered his first presidential primary. There were tantalizing rumors but no documentation until she encountered Bill Burkett, a former Texas National Guard officer with an axe to grind against his superiors and the Bush family. The “memos” that supposedly proved Bush had been AWOL from the ANG turned out to be crude fakes, created on a computer and easily replicated by anyone with a copy of Microsoft Word and a printer.
After that, the story quickly fell apart, and the subsequent CBS investigation (headed by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and retired AP chairman Louis Bocardi) exposed just how shoddy the “reporting” had been. Mapes was rightfully fired and Rather left the network as well, after working at CBS for 43 years. He later spent millions suing his former employer, but the case was dismissed.
So why perpetuate an obvious fiction–beyond the pathological hatred for Mr. Bush and his administration? It’s no secret the left is adept at re-writing history, or at least the popular interpretation of key events. Making a movie out of Truth allows the media wing of the progressive movement to place a new spin on an embarrassing moment. Instead of (rightly) focusing on the deficiencies in the original reporting, the new film takes a different tack: suggesting that Mapes and Rather were dismissed for asking the wrong questions about the wrong people at the wrong time.
Clearly, movie audiences aren’t buying this revisionist tripe, but dont’ underestimate the film’s long-term staying power. It will become required viewing in journalism schools around the nation, with sympathetic professors suggesting that Redford, Blanchett and director James Vanderbilt actually “got it right.” In time, the “new” version of events will largely supplant the truth, making it easier for fraudulent journalists to try similar stunts in the future. After all, Dan Rather himself suggested back in 2004 it was acceptable to use phony evidence “if the major thrust of the story was true.” That led to the infamous characterization of the ANG memos as “fake, but accurate.”
Following that line of logic, it’s almost as important to have the final say on something, particularly if you can alter long-term perceptions and opinions. As entertainment, Truth is an absolute bust (and deservedly so). As an attempt to change perceptions among key, liberal constituencies, the jury is still out.
ADDENDUM: Despite poor reviews, Truth is actually being touted as an Oscar contender, with Redford and Blanchett has potential nominees. Nothing like a gold statue (or two) to burnish the latest lie from Hollywood.