Awards Profile: Truth

See the resemblance yet?
See the resemblance yet?
See the resemblance yet?

Welcome to the 2015 Awards Profiles series.  For the next two months, every day (except for Saturday), we will bring you a run down of a future 2015 film that we see as a potential awards vehicle for next year’s Academy Awards.  This is all speculative since with just about all these films, we haven’t seen a frame yet.  Nonetheless, we venture on.  If you miss a film, then click on the tag “2015 Awards Profile.”

Directed by: James Vanderbilt
Written by: James Vanderbilt
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss, Bruce Greenwood, David Lyons and John Benjamin Hickey

Synopsis: The last days of news anchor Dan Rather at CBS News after broadcasting a report about how President Bush relied on privilege to avoid fighting in the Vietnam War.

Why it might succeed:

In the back of her mind, Mary Mapes probably wondered who would play her in a film on the morning of September 9th, 2004. Who could blame her? She had become one of the most respected newswomen in the country after producing the 60 Minutes report on the Abu Ghraib prison scandal (which eventually won her a Peabody Award) and just the night before had aired yet another explosive 60 Minutes segment on then-President George W. Bush’s preferential treatment and failure to fulfill his obligations during his service in the Texas Air National Guard. It was the kind of report that could very well change the course of a Presidential election, and by extension history itself . Who wouldn’t want to make a movie about her part in that kind of game-changing journalism?

Ten years later…well, let’s just say she at least knows who’s going to play her. For those of you who may not remember what exactly happened, that 60 Minutes segment on George W. Bush and his Air National Guard service alleged that he disobeyed an order to submit to a psychical examination from his Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B. Killian (who passed away in 1984), that Bush had applied for a leave of absence from May to November 1972 to work on a political campaign for a friend of the Bush family, and that Killian was pressured into writing a more positive performance evaluation than Bush had earned. The key pieces of evidence presented in support of these claims – documents allegedly signed by Lt. Col. Killian – were being discredited literally as the segment was still airing by right-wing blogs and message forums. They pointed chiefly to the typography of the documents, and how the proportional spacing was more consistent with Microsoft Word 2004 than a 70’s-era electric typewriter, as proof that they were forgeries. The skepticism over the authenticity of these documents soon spread to the major newspapers. CBS stood by their story even as many other facts disputing their report were being discovered. The story’s sources – including CBS’s original expert examiners and Gen. Bobby Hodges – later came forward with claims that they had expressed doubts from the beginning about the authenticity of the documents, but that those doubts were not aired in the original 60 Minutes segment.

Oops.

After less than two weeks defending themselves, CBS finally backed down and Dan Rather issued a retraction and apology for running the story. CBS soon after appointed an independent panel to find out what went wrong with the story. The answer: a lot. Mary Mapes was fired and CBS News Executive Producer Josh Howard, Senior Broadcast Producer Mary Murphy, Senior Vice President Betsy West and Anchorman Dan Rather were forced to resign in the aftermath. A 60 Minutes report on the Iraq War was postponed to avoid further political heat so soon after the Killian documents controversy. Rather filed a lawsuit against CBS for “scapegoating” him, but it was eventually dismissed. The controversy became – and to this day still is – cited by political conservatives as a prime example of a perceived liberal bias in the mainstream media. George W. Bush was elected to a second term.

For her part, Mapes continues to assert the validity of the story she spearheaded and wrote a book defending her investigation and detailing her experience dealing with the backlash from her report, titled Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, which is the basis for screenwriter James Vanderbilt’s upcoming directorial debut, simply titled Truth.

Cate Blanchett
This is the lovely Cate Blanchett before she gets put through the ringer at CBS News.

If successful, Truth would hardly be the first film about journalism to strike the Academy’s fancy, and its subject matter surrounds one of the most controversial events in the history of television news. Along with directing it, Vanderbilt is also the screenwriter for Truth, and he’s already proven he can write a gripping behind-the-headlines procedural. Starring in the film are Academy Award-winners Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford as Mapes and Rather, respectively. Blanchett’s Best Lead Actress victory is only a year old, yet the boost to her career from her second Oscar is already readily apparent with her landing plum roles such as this one. The part of Mapes experiencing the worst days of her life looks to be a physically and mentally taxing role (hello, de-glam!). There’s even more anticipation surrounding Redford as the legendary anchor, mostly due to curiosity over how he’ll be made up to look like him. Veteran performers have been recognized for portraying famous reporters before (though it’s not exactly guaranteed), and while he has two Academy Awards already, neither of them are for acting, and AMPAS may feel the urge to rectify that.

Several never-nominated performers, including Elisabeth Moss (following up her remarkable work in Listen Up Philip last year and her final season of Mad Men this year), Bruce Greenwood (a consistently reliable actor passed over a couple of times for strong performances in, among other things, The Sweet Hereafter and Thirteen Days), Dennis Quaid (whose failure to get nominated for Far from Heaven is one of the Academy’s worst oversights of the last fifteen years, in my opinion) and Topher Grace (who, um, I’m sure will have his chance to shine eventually…maybe with this film?) surround Blanchett and Redford. You can definitely expect to see Under the Circuit articles on most of those names in the near future, and all of their characters are rich enough in the book for the potential to impress the Academy. Keep an eye out as well for citations below-the-line in Makeup & Hairstyling (they love seeing male actors made up to look like real people) and Production Design.

Why it might not:

Truth and Duty
You may also recognize this book by its alternate title: “Boo Hoo: Everyone’s Out to Get Me”

Because I love you all, I read Truth and Duty – or I should say, suffered through it – to get an idea of what material this film would be going off of…and it ain’t promising. The whole book is a whiny diatribe lashing out at everyone Mapes believes “wronged” her (and boy, is it a long list) and painting herself as a faultless martyr for the righteousness of investigative journalism. Because apparently writing over three hundred pages detailing a vast conspiracy out to destroy you is easier to do than simply saying, “I made a mistake,” Mapes comes off self-aggrandizing (the entirety of Chapter 2 is dedicated to painting an almost comically idealized American Dream portrait of her life in an attempt to refute the characterization of her as a left-wing extremist for chasing this story as long and as recklessly as she did: “I grew up on a farm!” “I believe in God!” “I cook dinner at home!”), naïve (she was “shocked” that the right attacked a news piece denigrating their Presidential candidate’s military service published less than two months before the general election…seriously?!), disingenuous (she insists that proportional spacing in typed documents was possible in the early 70’s, which is technically true but beside the point, and then either ignores or dismisses with bald-faced assertions most of the other more serious problems discovered with the story) and hypocritical (early on in the book she decries modern journalism’s focus on gossipy, scandalous stories over important events before on the very next page talking about CBS President Les Moonves’s illicit relationship with then-Early Show anchor Julie Chen for no reason).

Truth and Duty is petty, unrepentant axe-grinding at its most irritating. What kills the book isn’t that her account of events has, at best, debatable factual accuracy (though that certainly does her no favors), it’s that it is so completely lacking in maturity or any new insights that the whole thing comes off wearyingly vainglorious even if readers were to side with every one of her claims. Now, buried within her book are valid concerns about the overall state of investigative journalism: how corporate interests and powerful individuals exert undue influence on the news cycle, how careful consideration of the facts get swallowed up in the fast-paced world of I-need-it-now media culture, and how lives can be irreparably destroyed by agenda-driven smear campaigns regardless of their validity. Those are all fine themes to explore in a film, except Michael Mann already made The Insider, and that was about a 60 Minutes story based on solid evidence that impacted far more people. With this whole thing over a decade old now, I must ask: was this story really worth fighting for in the first place? Lots of privileged kids used family connections to avoid fighting in Vietnam and skate off from their duties to Uncle Sam. What difference does it make that one of them happened to be George W. Bush? If James Vanderbilt writes a faithful adaptation in an attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of its author, I would almost go so far as to say Truth’s awards chances are very low.

There’s also reason to be skeptical about the film’s biggest names. Ignoring for a minute the spotty track record of screenwriters trying their hand at directing, James Vanderbilt has got to have one of the oddest recent careers of any writer in Hollywood. A descendant of one of the most powerful families in American history, he burst onto the scene with three Bmovies all penned by him released in 2003 (only one of which was actually good, but hey, that’s not too shabby), before having nothing after that produced until 2007, when out of nowhere he managed to write one of that year’s most intelligent and gripping crime thrillers. And then, just when one would think of Zodiac as the herald of an amazing career, Vanderbilt went right back to writing hokey B-movies and doubling down with two Amazingly awful attempts to reboot a moribund superhero franchise. It’s a bizarre filmography, and one that makes it impossible to get a read on the chances of Truth being a good screenplay, or even one that will be received well by Oscar voters.

The actors are not sure bets, either. Robert Redford, while fairly successful with the Academy as a filmmaker, hasn’t had as much luck with them as an actor. He was most recently passed over for his nearly-silent performance in All Is Lost, which, okay, is partially due to his own lack of investment in the film’s Oscar campaign, but how do we know he’ll be any different about awards promotion this time around? Cate Blanchett also has Carol due for release this year, and given the choice between a movie about Mary Mapes or a Todd Haynes-directed film about…really, anyone, which one do you think is likelier to contain the more interesting Blanchett performance, barring any additional information? If I were her publicist, choosing which movie to focus on for her attempted seventh Oscar nomination would not exactly be a Sophie’s Choice to me.

For these reasons, I cannot in good faith present Truth as a serious contender for Best Picture at this time, but I would be foolish if I didn’t acknowledge that it does have decent chances of recognition for its cast, screenplay, production design and makeup work. If I turn out to be wrong, I promise I won’t blame my lapse in judgement on a vast conspiracy of right-wing political operatives armed with angry blogs masterminded by Karl Rove.

Truth is tentatively set for release later this year.

Oscar Potential:
Lead Actress (Cate Blanchett)
Lead Actor (Robert Redford)
Supporting Actress (Elisabeth Moss)
Supporting Actor (Topher Grace and/or Dennis Quaid and/or Bruce Greenwood)
Adapted Screenplay (James Vanderbilt)
Production Design (Fiona Crombie and Glen W. Johnson)
Makeup and Hairstyling (Paige Badenoch)