A fascination with journalism inspired writer-director James Vanderbilt.
Truth is a classic newsroom drama, a suspenseful behind-the-scenes procedural, a multi-character study—and also something more: In the words of former CBS News anchor Dan Rather, “This film is about what has happened to the reporting of news, how and why it’s happened, and why you should care.”
For Writer-Director James Vanderbilt, a fascination with journalism initially drew him to the project.
“Movie making and journalism are different ways of telling a story. I grew up with All the President’s Men and wrote and co-produced Zodiac, about the San Francisco Chronicle, and I’ve always been intrigued with what goes on in newsrooms. When a big story breaks on 60 Minutes, how does that happen? How does the sausage get made?”
Back in 2005, Vanderbilt, who makes his directorial debut with Truth, came upon an advance excerpt in Vanity Fair of Mary Mapes’ memoir Truth and Duty: the Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. The memoir recounts, in blow-by-blow detail, Mapes’ investigative work as producer of the controversial 60 Minutes II piece on then-President George W. Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard, and the subsequent firestorm of accusation that shredded the story’s credibility and ultimately led to the firing of Mapes and the forced resignation of Rather.
“I was about as aware as anybody else of the CBS scandal, but when I read the piece, I saw I clearly didn’t know a lot about what actually happened behind the scenes. Cinematically, I imagined being taken behind the curtain of what that world is like, and being able to experience it through the eyes of veteran journalists who flew so high and fell so far.”
Vanderbilt and his Mythology Entertainment partner, Producer Brad Fischer, acquired the rights to Mapes’ memoir and began speaking to the then-disgraced former news producer about adapting it to the screen.
Having previously worked together as producers of the fact-based David Fincher film, Zodiac, the pair was familiar with the challenges of making a movie that delved into a traumatic period in the lives of real people.
“Mary was reticent at first,” recalls Vanderbilt, “But I asked if it would be OK to come down to Texas for a few days. We talked about everything but what had happened. We talked about our favourite movies, we talked about her history, my history, everything but the incident, and at the end she was comfortable enough to move forward.”
“I trusted Jamie not to turn it into something it wasn’t,” says Mapes. “I liked his screenplay, and we went back and forth on details, but I honestly believed for all these many years that it probably was never going to happen.” Although Mapes no longer works in broadcast journalism, she has moved on with her career as a writer and consultant.
Nailing the details For Vanderbilt and Fischer, accuracy was critical.
“I knew Mary’s book was a really good jumping off point in terms of her view of things,” says Vanderbilt, “But, especially in something that’s contentious, there are going to be many sides to the story. I really wanted to do the homework as much as I could. I talked to a lot of people who were involved, not all of whom were sympathetic to Mary’s cause. I spoke to Dan and Mary, Mike Smith, Roger Charles, Josh Howard and a lot of people. I went back to the method of trying to double-source everything we put in the movie.”
When asked about the accuracy of Vanderbilt’s screenplay and TRUTH, Dan Rather asserts, “It’s not just pretty accurate, it’s astonishingly accurate.”
Mapes recalls, “Dan said ‘I think it is the best thing I’ve ever seen on the craft of journalism,’ meaning: ‘You go get this. I’ll get this. You try to get this. We have to get this. What did you get?’ How you take all those disparate pieces and you put it together into a puzzle where a picture forms and then you go out and tell people, ‘Look at the picture.’ At CBS, we had really good, smart, strong people working in so many different areas on pulling stories together, people who believed it was important.”
Capturing the blur and intensity of a newsroom under deadline, says Vanderbilt, “was like a submarine movie—you’ve got this ragtag bunch of people in the sardine can together, and they’re spouting their own specialized arcane language, but the movie doesn’t stop to explain all that—you just go with it.”
Cate Blanchett, who had won the Best Actress Oscar for Blue Jasmine wasbbeing offered everything under the sun, and here was Jamie, a first-time director, but she responded strongly to the vision that Jamie would bring to directing.
“I usually read scripts very slowly,” recalls Blanchett, “but I read Jamie’s Truth script in one sitting. Once you get on it’s like a freight train, and I think that must have been the experience for the actual real-life protagonists in the story. I was gripped by it.”
With Blanchett on board, the filmmakers knew precisely where to turn for their big-screen portrayal of a small-screen icon. “The big trick of casting this movie was Dan Rather,” recalls Vanderbilt. “If you grew up in America hearing his voice, it’s part of your history. When Dan walks into a room, he becomes the center of gravity. So we needed someone with that same gravitational pull. We needed a legend to play a legend.”
As Robert Redford remembers it, “I thought, I’ve got to deliver the essence of the guy without doing a caricature. He’s a very orderly, proper fellow; he has a dark underpinning that wants to dig in, and he doesn’t mind if he unsettles things, but on the surface he is a very dignified, old-fashioned, polite guy.” Redford and Rather had been acquaintances since working together on an environmental news story for 60 Minutes in the 1970s. “A way of getting at the essence of Rather,” says Redford, “was to develop the relationship between him and Mary Mapes, as played by Cate. Their loyalty was at the core of the film.”
There can be few experiences in life quite like discovering that one will be played by the likes of Cate Blanchett or Robert Redford. Mary Mapes and Dan Rather were together on a conference call with Vanderbilt and Fischer when they heard the news. “Humbling,” says Rather. “Flabbergasted,” says Mapes. “We were speechless, and that never happens!”
Later, Rather recalls, “when I walked onto the set, I was floored at how closely Cate resembled Mary, not just her hair and clothes but her mannerisms, her walk, her vocal delivery.” Likewise, “it was unnerving to me how Redford captured these small things about Dan,” says Mapes. “The way he stands, the way he moves his head, the way his back looks with those ever-present suspenders. This real gravitas and vulnerability.”
Blanchett had done web research and studied interview videos of Mapes from her memoir book tour before meeting her in person. “I was horrified by the personal attacks against Mary. It was really the advent of the blogosphere, and to witness someone’s fall from grace via these so-called Internet reports was chilling. In the videos, she’s very armored up and defensive. Then to meet in person this vivacious, vital, positive, searingly intelligent woman with her incredible sense of humor—that was amazing. I hope I’ve found a small window in the freight train of the story to try to bring the real-life Mary’s vivacity into the piece.”
Redford talks about the delicate business of real lives intersecting with screen lives: “I said ‘Look, Dan. I’m going to be playing you. This is tricky. Would you like to tell me anything? From your point of view, can you tell me what this was really about?’ And he said, ‘Yes, it was about loyalty. It was a tripod loyalty to my partner and producer, Mary Mapes, my boss, CBS, and myself. It was all equal. I was equally loyal to CBS, my boss, and equally loyal to my compatriot.’”
The church of CBS Rather speaks of “the CBS ethos of loyalty—the institution standing behind our reporting from the Edward R. Murrow era to civil rights to Vietnam to Abu Ghraib, our whole long history and tradition of questioning power. I loved what CBS News had stood for through more than half a century—and still do.”
“It was the church of CBS,” says Mapes. “I had joined the order. I really believed in the organization. I believed in journalism and the purity and importance of that kind of work. I believed that I had been lucky enough to get the best job in the world. To work with Dan was an incredible honor. Before he became a friend, someone I could tease mercilessly, I had admired him all of my adult life, and to work with him was just an incredible, as we say in Texas, blessing.”
Inspired by the “church of CBS” ethos, Vanderbilt and composer Brian Tyler aimed for an almost devotional quality in the music behind the key montage of Americans watching the 60 Minutes II report on President George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service.
“For the journalists,” says Vanderbilt, “This is their moment—we’ve done all this work, all the research, and now we press play and it goes out all over the country and people can watch and learn. It’s the moment we’ve been waiting for. I wanted that montage scene to feel different, because if this were any other movie, this would be the end of the movie—job well done, The End. But instead it’s the dividing line between building up and tearing down, before and after.”
Questioning power Within that triumph-to-downfall arc, the unbroken bond of respect and affection between Mapes and Rather underlies Truth’s emotional trajectory. “It’s almost a father-daughter relationship,” says Vanderbilt.
“There’s very much an underpinning of truth to that,” says Mapes. “I do think Dan and I share a certain perspective about injustice. I grew up with an authority figure who was unfair and abusive, and so I had a mindset that it is possible for people to abuse their authority and to hurt underdogs. In any context I am much more interested in the stories of people who were not born at the top of the pile, who didn’t have all the advantages in the world. I was interested in exposing hypocrisies and inequity in our lives and society. Dan shares that ethic—as a journalist that’s what you are supposed to do. You are supposed to hold the powerful to account to the same standards the rest of us live by. We got slammed and cut adrift for that.”
Says Rather, “Our form of government is supposed to be for the people, by the people, of the people, and it only works if people know what is really going on. That is the mission of a journalist—to find out and report what those in power don’t want you to know, what they want to keep hidden. That’s only possible when journalists can operate within a system that supports independence and integrity.”
Vanderbilt muses, “We’ve gone from being a country where disagreement is okay to outrage when someone has a different point of view, people screaming at each other. This period in journalism, a decade ago, is fascinating—it’s right at that tipping point of discovering how the Internet works, how fast, how responsive. How forces can line up to divide us as a country. Doing the movie was never about proving Mapes and Rather were right or wrong about the story. Just like All The President’s Men isn’t about Richard Nixon, this movie is not about George W. Bush.”
As Dan Rather explains it, “I feel no need for validation or redemption. I am what my record is, a long one with pluses and minuses, ups and downs, and a lot in between. I have a passion for what I do professionally, always have, still do. But if our story can help even one journalist to stand up against interference and intimidation, if it can help even one viewer understand how important real news is, if it helps even one voter to elect those who will protect democracy and protect journalism from those who would poison it, it is worth it all.”