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'Truth' a Gripping Account of a Journalistic Disaster

"Truth" is a journalism horror story, something like "All the President's Men" but with the wrong ending and plenty of blame on all sides. It is one of the most frustrating speak-truth-to-power tales ever put onscreen, because it dares to show how that usually works out: Power wins. Big.

They say that if you want to go after a king, you'd better kill the king. Similarly, if you want to do a television expose about the sitting president of the United States (two months before a national election!), you'd better have every fact nailed down. It's not enough to be bulletproof. You'd better be encased in a lead-lined bomb shelter of incontrovertible accuracy or you are going to get blown to bits -- even if you're CBS news. Yes, even if you're Dan Rather.

This is the story of how some very good journalists, at the top of their profession, made themselves radioactive by airing a story that might actually have been true -- but they couldn't prove it. They thought they could. They thought they had it airtight. But within 24 hours of the broadcast they were taking on water and couldn't bail fast enough. Robert Redford's going down with the ship in "All Is Lost" was just a rehearsal for his performance in "Truth."

By the way, if the thought of the laid-back, blond and unflappable Redford playing the dark-haired, intense and tightly wired Rather sounds weird, in practice it's not. Somehow Redford finds a middle zone between himself and the man he plays -- he adopts Rather's Texas inflections and elevates his own speech patterns to a television pace, evoking Rather without imitating him.

But at the center of the film is Cate Blanchett as Mary Mapes, a star producer who, in 2004, was riding high. Months before, she had broken the Abu Ghraib torture story, and as the movie begins, another ripe one is falling into her lap: A retired colonel comes forward with photocopies of letters from the early 1970s that seem to prove that George W. Bush, who was in the Texas Air National Guard at the time, not only got preferential treatment but was a total deadbeat, absent without leave for an entire year.

The explosiveness of such revelations can best be appreciated in context: Just as the story was forming, the Swift Boat Veterans were appearing on commercials trying to deny the merits of the Democratic candidate John Kerry's military service. A counter-narrative, showing that Bush didn't even do the bare minimum of military service during the same era, might have given Kerry the election.

In the film, Mapes understands the story's significance, and so she doesn't want to air it in October and be accused of dropping an October surprise. The result is that the story gets rushed. The letters are authenticated in a way that's at best cursory, and Mapes is still at the editing table minutes before the "60 Minutes" broadcast. By the next morning, the right-wing blogs are accurately noting that the letters look a lot as if they were typed on Microsoft Word, which, in case anyone is unclear on the chronology, did not exist in 1972.

The rest is like watching a disaster in slow motion. Everything conspires to bring down the house -- the ambition of other news organizations, political pressure, corporate considerations, the abandonment and recanting of key sources, and the mad scramble of all involved to distance themselves from the two players who can neither run nor hide: Mapes and Rather. If there were merits to the story, soon nobody cares, except for them. By not getting the story right, they tainted it.

All of this would almost be too agonizing to watch, except that Blanchett's journey from the top to the bottom is spellbinding -- we see everything crumbling as through her eyes. When she goes before the men conducting CBS' internal investigation, we might as well be seeing a scene from the Inquisition. It's reminiscent of a line from another memorable journalism film, "Five Star Final," from 1931: "You can always get people interested in the crucifixion of a woman."

"Truth" is based on Mapes' own book, "Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power;" and as adapted and directed by James Vanderbilt, it's very much from her point of view. It's not some subjective overview, or a painstaking autopsy of a dead story to be meticulously studied in journalism classes. But then, it doesn't pretend to be. It's one woman's account of the singular calamity of her professional life, and it's impossible to turn away from it.

Mick LaSalle is The San Francisco Chronicle's movie critic. E-mail: mlasalle@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MickLaSalle

Truth

Drama. Starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford. Directed by James Vanderbilt. (R. 125 minutes.) ___

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This article was written by Mick Lasalle from San Francisco Chronicle and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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