This probing look at TV news is (unlike the upcoming Spotlight) a trip into the dark side of journalism. CBS producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) climbs a slippery slope when she organizes a segment for 60 Minutes II, with CBS News anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) at the helm, suggesting that a young George W. Bush pulled strings in 1968 to dodge Vietnam by taking Texas Air National Guard pilot training.
Juicy stuff, especially in light of the Swift-boat scandal that tainted John Kerry’s campaign. Bush-bashing could shift the election. Mapes feels confident thanks to her research team, including Lt. Col. Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), journalism prof Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss) and freelancer Mike Smith (Topher Grace). But the team relies heavily on supporting documents reportedly written in 1972 and 1973 by Bush’s commander, the late Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, that label Bush a no-show. When the Killian documents are discredited, Mapes is fired and Rather is sent into retirement.
End of story. Or it would be if Mapes hadn’t written a 2005 book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, an apologia of sorts. And if screenwriter James Vanderbilt (Zodiac), making a rattling-good directorial debut, hadn’t seen the book as a basis for a hellraiser of a movie.
That it is. Blanchett burns on a high flame, and Redford finds the wounded dignity in Rather. But not enough to give the Mapes team a pass. The real story here is how the CBS bosses, tasked to entertain and win ratings, pushed to get the piece aired before it was ready and then pushed to throw Mapes and Rather under the bus. It’s not a pretty picture, but it gives this movie the harsh ring of truth.