The bombshell came from CBS in September 2004 during George W. Bush's re-election campaign: Our president had used his connections during the Vietnam War to land a no-show job in the Texas Air National Guard. Even as Bush's allies were questioning Democratic candidate John Kerry's Purple Heart, it appeared Bush himself barely showed up for service. What's more, CBS had documents to prove it.
Except they didn't. After Dan Rather aired the story on "60 Minutes II," bloggers successfully attacked the 1970s-era documents as modern forgeries, and Rather later apologized. Four months later he resigned from CBS News, the beginning of the end of his 44-year tenure at the station.
"Truth," which screened at last week's Hamptons International Film Festival, is James Vanderbilt's sympathetic but clear-eyed retelling of this tale. It stars a cool and classy Robert Redford as Rather -- the actor's second role as a legendary journalist, after Bob Woodward in "All the President's Men" (1976) -- but its focus is on Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, the CBS producer on whose book the movie is based. Though Rather was the face of the story, it was Mapes who put it together. The first half of "Truth" is a gripping tale of shoe-leather journalism (Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elisabeth Moss play her energized team) and we feel the thrill of the "gotcha" even though we know what's coming.
The second half is almost a horror movie, a waking nightmare in which the cameras turn backward and every fact turns out to be a humiliating fiction. Blanchett is electrifying as Mapes, who transforms from a well-coifed career woman into a walking ruin. By the film's end, she has crumbled as thoroughly as her story.
Provocatively and aptly titled, "Truth" stands apart from other journalism films for its mercilessly evenhanded approach. Mapes and her cohorts are heroes but also their own villains -- upper-echelon television reporters whose eagerness led to errors in judgment and whose hubris led them to underestimate the power of that new medium, the Internet. Throughout the film, they put forth many eloquent arguments, but they also meet with brutal rebuttals. As one minor character says simply of the Bush story: "Yes, but you didn't prove it."