LFF 2015: Cate Blanchett stars as CBS producer Mary Mapes in this powerful drama
The truth, so the old adage goes, will set you free. Not so for CBS 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes (played here by Cate Blanchett) who found herself in the middle of an ethical and political maelstrom when she aired a 2004 story questioning then president George W Bush’s Air National Guard service record. It included as evidence two military documents which, it transpired, may not have been authentic; something which resulted in a public investigation and the loss of jobs for many of those involved.
The rousing screenplay by James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man) – who also makes an assured directorial debut – is based on Mapes’ own book, and that he regards her as a crusader for the democratic process is further emphasised by the swelling score and A-list casting. Despite his obvious bias, however, Vanderbilt brings a sense of balance; Mapes’ personal and professional history casts unavoidable shadow over her motivations, one that can only be banished by meticulous examination of the facts. This level of narrative detail is something Vanderbilt clearly relishes, the richness of his writing turning the story of a paper trail into an exhilarating, emotional quest for justice.
The sheer volume of information means that much of the dialogue feels exposition-heavy, but the performances ensure it never becomes sluggish. While Elisabeth Moss is woefully underused, Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace are great as the other members of Mapes’ research team; Grace claims one of the film’s best scenes, in which he throws furious light on the extent to which CBS is in economic thrall to the Bush administration. Robert Redford, too, is perfect as stoical, traditional newsman Dan Rather – echoes of his previous work like Lions for Lambs and All the President’s Men adding weight to his performance.
This is, however, Blanchett’s film, and she is sublime. While some elements of Mapes' characterisation are heavy-handed, such as the parallels between her relationship with her father and her determination to question authority, Blanchett rises above such flaws to deliver a subtle, nuanced performance. She may portray a successful woman determined to hold her own against a system campaigning to silence her, but she is no martyr; the fight takes its toll and, as Mapes feels the full force of public disgrace, her resolve often falters, showing her to be decidedly, sympathetically human.
The fact that she is a woman operating in such a male-dominated arena informs parts of the narrative – a sequence in which she discovers vile, sexist comments on an internet forum will ring painful bells with any woman who dares voice her opinion in public – but it doesn’t soapbox on gender issues. Instead, the film calls into question the viability of nonpartisan journalism in an age in which to challenge the status quo is to be scrutinised and vilified. So, while it may be awards-season filmmaking at its most conventional, as a eulogy for independent news-gathering Truth has undeniable power.
Screening on Sat 17 and Sun 18 Oct as part of the London Film Festival 2015. General release TBC.