George W. Bush May Be a Draft Dodger But He Was Still Elected President. Twice
September 2004 was a precarious time for the United States. The nation was mourning the three year anniversary of its worst national tragedy in decades, it had been embroiled in the War on Terror in Afghanistan for three years, and it had just opened a second front in that war, taking on Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Most troubling of all, the United States were on the cusp of another four years of the George W. Bush administration – a term that would include such calamities as the Scooter Libby grand jury scandal, VP Dick Cheney shooting a guy “on accident”, and a slip into the worst financial recession the world had seen in generations.
These were dark times for America, but thanks to the patriotic good will whipped up by that dark, watershed morning in September of 2001, Bush had had a lot of momentum going into the 2004 presidential race. The greatest threat to Bush’s reelection came just a couple of months before Election Day – three days before the third anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks, in fact – when 60 Minutes II, a CBS News program, aired a report claiming President Bush had been given a cushy post in the Air National Guard by one of his daddy’s oil friends, helping the UT Law School reject avoid a tour in Vietnam. This allegation, in effect, insinuated not only that Bush was draft dodger, but that he neglected his duties when assigned to that coveted post.
Truth, the 2015 based-on-a-true-story film, written and directed by James Vanderbilt, tells of the meteoric impact that this story almost had on American history. The evidence these accusations were based upon, the “Killian Documents” – memos from the desk of Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian, the commanding officer in charge of Bush’s National Guard post (in one damning memo, Killian claims he was asked to “sugarcoat” Dubya’s performance) – were ultimately proven to be forgeries. Within days of the 60 Minutes II story, other news outlets were jumping all over the story based on the apparently falsified documents. Eventually, the erroneous report would cost many people their jobs, including Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the CBS producer who led the investigation, and the longtime CBS News anchor, Dan Rather (Robert Redford).
The film approaches this controversy from a decidedly pro-Mapes/Rather/Journalism point of view, which isn’t too surprising – Vanderbilt’s script is adapted from Mapes’ memoir of the events, Truth and Duty, published shortly after she was fired from CBS. It’s understandable that Vanderbilt would have a point of view on this story – good journalism films like All the President’s Men and Spotlight certainly are guilty of this as well – but his is so assuredly in defense of the story, so convinced of a conspiracy against the reporters, the tone of the whole film comes off as overly reverential.
I’m not against the idea that there was some level of conspiracy to silence the reporters digging into Bush’s service record, but this is also a case where the journalists involved pretty clearly fucked up. They didn’t vet their sources deeply enough and it backfired on them. It would be possible for Vanderbilt to consider both competing perspectives on the case in his film, but he doesn’t seem interested in doing that at all. Instead, Truth paints its central characters as infallible heroes fighting to reveal truth against the power of the Bush White House. But these heroes were indeed fallible – they just never appeared to accept it.
Outside of the toothless script, Truth boasts a few quality performances. Blanchett, unsurprisingly, is magnetic. She embodies the tenacious spirit of a female reporter who has had to fight upstream for a story more than a few times in her career. Redford does a pretty good Dan Rather, however, he is still such a strikingly handsome man that I never really saw Dan Rather at all. It’s there in the voice, a little, but he still looks like the dreamy ol’ Sundance Kid. Topher Grace is in this movie, too. He plays Mike Smith, a bad boy freelance reporter, which may not be the best casting. Grace slides into the scenes as if he’s always rushing in to tell the rest of the characters something important. It’s distracting, but he does that reasonably well.
There’s a scene halfway through the film that I feels defines the whole picture. I can describe it to you without spoiling anything (on-the-record history has no spoilers). It’s the night of the big broadcast, and Mapes’ team has been working up to the last minute finalizing the segment. Finally, Dan Rather goes live on air and begins to report the story. Shortly after that, the scene cuts to Mapes and her reporters watching on in awe. Enya-type music begins playing and the camera circles around the actors as they stare at the TV, bearing witness to “Truth in Action.” It wants to feel weighty and important, but it winds up just feeling silly.
Yes, Truth is highly sentimental about its subject matter, but it’s still telling an interesting story. Director Vanderbilt’s approach to the story feels vanilla and boring – like it was made to please a certain audience instead of taking a stab and finding the truth in the controversy. That sort of makes it a bad- -but-decently-well-made movie, so it’s not awful. It’s a good and bad movie, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.