Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Nov 15, 2015 4:38 pm 
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Good material

Some critics actually prefer James Vanderbilt's Truth to Tom McCarthy's Spotlight. Both are conscientious and detailed films about journalistic investigations, and both take place within a year or two of each other. But these are apples and oranges, a TV story that went wrong vs. a newspaper story that went right. The Boston Globe's Spotlight story about Catholic sex abuse looked into a widespread problem covering a long period of time and was a Pulitzer prizewinning newspaper investigation revealed in a series of stories. It is also, obviously, a success. With Truth we are in the pressure cooker world of television news, albeit "Sixty Minutes," arguably American TV's most distinguished iteration of the form (in the movie Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), the lead investigator and lead character, calls "Sixty Minutes" the "gold standard"). Unfortunately the story Mary Mapes and her team are going after for Dan Rather (Robert Redford) to present leads to her and her team's firing and Rather's resignation. One can say there was government pressure. But was it wise to go aver President Bush's reputation about events thirty years earlier on the eve of his reelection? This is what they did. And it's clear from the film that the story rode on unreliable documents and was put together too quickly.

Critics of Spotlight predictably describe it as "flat." Truth certainly isn't that. Where Spotlight subordinates its individual characters to the story that's being pursued, Truth, based on Mary Mapes' own personal memoir, is all about Mary Mapes. It is, true, a great vehicle for Cate Blanchett, but one's heart sinks when one finds Catherine Shoard saying in her Guardian review of Truth that the actress does the same thing in it that she did in Allen's Blue Jasmine and has just also done in Carol. This is not even remotely true, but Blanchett gets plenty of chances to chew up the rug in Truth, and that doesn't do much for "truth," and this is not as interesting as those two other roles. Nor does Mapes' "hippie" investigative lieutenant Mike Smith (an overstrained Topher Grace) do much for the film when he delivers his tirade against Mapes' superior on being ordered from the building. Nor do we get much out of the several Aaron Sorkin-style homilies Robert Redford is given to deliver in the mouth of an ever noble and unimpeachable Dan Rather, addressing all beings in the universe with his personal concern and chin-up admonition of "courage."

Both stories are detailed accounts of newsmen ardently seeking the truth. It just doesn't feel quite that way sometimes with Truth. Nonetheless Vanderbilt, who wrote the screenplay for Fincher's Zodiac, is following a complex story with point-by-point detail about copies, handwriting identification, raised-up "th's" and the like. Only instead of following priests abusing children and bishops and cardinals covering for them and transferring them to another parish, we're looking at a good old Texas boy slacking off on the Air National Guard while avoiding Vietnam duty. Spotlight gives us nitty gritty details of the journalist's life. But Truth indulges in them, more, the chortling over a choice "brisket" of a factoid, the kidding, the munching on Chinese takeout, details that are in the background of Spotlight's spotlight on its overwhelmingly compelling story.

Mary Mapes is telling the Truth story, leaving her idols and cohorts to seem unimpeachable while exposing her superiors as hypocrites. But this is the story of her own downfall and how she herself engineered it. It looks as if she pushed those "Killian documents" too hard. Then, when facing a barrage of pro-Administration lawyers, she refused to follow the instructions of her own lawyer and insisted on brandishing her "liberal" politics at them and thus antagonizing them. Perhaps she was doomed anyway to be fired, but her story makes her look like a self-consciously noble and willful failure, not just someone who made serious mistakes and had to slink away. And all along, we are aware this is television, however "gold standard," and the pressure of Prime Time and publicity is behind everything that goes on.

The material the Spotlight investigation team have to work with is much more important and much more rich. The understated style of Todd McCarthy's film is a wonder. Vanderbilt, though he too has a rich investigative story, is forced to deliver it in the form of flashy, jokey, weepy material in which the main actors playing news people, Blanchett, Grace, Elizabeth Moss, Dennis Quaid, are constantly grinning, grimacing, and rolling their eyes. Just the score sinks the picture. Still, Truth is good material. It just doesn't bear comparison with Spotlight, not by a mile. And this is a good role for Cate Blanchett; but it pales by comparison with Todd Haynes' lushly beautiful and emotionally subtle Carol.

Truth, 125 mins., debuted Toronto Sept. 2015, also London; US theatrical release 16 Oct.; 30 Oct. France 10 Feb. '16, UK 4 Mar. '16. Screened for this review at Landmark Albany Theater, Albany California 15 Nov. 2015.

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