When you call your movie Truth, you're setting a pretty high bar —especially if your setting is a time when truth was in short supply.
Truth is based on a memoir by Mary Mapes, a CBS news producer who was instrumental in breaking two stories of the Bush era: the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal and the so-called Killian documents scandal, where she and Dan Rather uncovered letters proving that then-president George W. Bush had gone AWOL from his Air National Guard unit during the Vietnam War. The former story got her a Peabody Award. The latter got her fired when it turned out the documents were fake. Maybe. That's the rub in Truth and the source of the possible unintentional irony of the title.
The film is a bit of a throwback. The story is told primarily with dialogue, and it expects the viewer to bring a little knowledge of recent history to the party. It's kind of like All the President's Men, only the good guys lose. The cast is killer: Cate Blanchett stars as Mapes, Robert Redford plays Dan Rather, and the supporting cast includes Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, and, best of them all, Stacy Keach as Bill Burkett, the ultimate source of the controversial letters. The story opens with Mapes and her team, fresh off the prisoner abuse story, which put the Bush administration on the defensive and eroded public trust in the team running the Iraq War, contemplating what to do next. The Swift Boat Veterans for Truth are in the process of undermining Democratic candidate John Kerry's Vietnam military record. But Mapes has heard Bush never even showed up for much of the stateside Air National Guard duty he pulled to avoid being deployed, and so she goes searching for proof, which is too-conveniently delivered to her.
In the film, passing reference is made to Mapes hearing rumors about the story during the 2000 campaign. But in fact, the story came from work done by Memphis Flyer political reporter Jackson Baker, who wrote about it in these pages in February, 2004, seven months before the ill-fated 60 Minutes report aired. Baker quoted Memphian Bob Mintz, a FedEx pilot who had flown in Bush's Air National Guard unit in Alabama, who claimed that he had never seen the future president on the base. Baker confirmed the story with fellow pilot Paul Bishop. The Flyer story was ignored for months until The Boston Globe and The New York Time's Nicholas Kristof interviewed Mintz, setting the CBS investigation in motion. But Baker's role in uncovering the story has gone unremarked until the website Raw Story reprinted the original column last week.
"It used to piss me off. It's probably a good thing for my piece of mind that I'd stopped thinking about it long ago," Baker says. "There's a sequel to this unjust oversight that's almost too much! In those days I was a regular stringer for Time magazine, and, when the Rather debacle occurred, the magazine's New York office delegated me to try to track down the source of the information that the ill-fated but well-intentioned (and well-aimed) CBS anchor had acted on in his late-campaign Bush story of 2004. I checked back through various layers of the likely daisy chain and finally got in touch with a Texas media guy who played a key role in getting the story to the national sources that ended up with it, including Rather. And where did this guy get his info? 'Why....' he sputtered, in obvious confusion. 'Why, from you! It was your story in The Memphis Flyer!' (SIGH!) I had found the mysterious Ur-source, and it was me. It's worth noting, by the way, that my account relied totally on Mintz and two other first-person National Guard witnesses on the scene in Alabama—no documents, suspect or otherwise. If the big boys had restricted themselves to the information in my story, Rather and Mapes would have kept their jobs, and Bush might have lost his."
Truth is ultimately about old-guard media giants ambushed by the Bushes' ruthless black-propaganda operation. Even at this late date, it never seems to occur to anyone involved that the story might be true, but the letters they were using for proof might be fakes planted to destroy their credibility. It's a solidly-made movie, but you may come away from it wondering who, if anyone, has a claim on truth in the 21st century.