'Truth' Asks You to 'Make Up Your Own Mind,' Says Director James Vanderbilt (INTERVIEW)

Opening in select theaters today, 'Truth' chronicles the 2004 '60 Minutes II' report that charged President George W. Bush with avoiding the Vietnam War runs the risk of having its own intentions be misinterpreted.
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Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford in 'Truth.' (Photo: Courtesy of TIFF)

For a movie about a group of investigative journalists whose attempt to uncover a political scandal was undone by sloppy reporting and faulty assumptions—leading to charges that the reporters were guided by their liberal bias—Truth itself runs the risk of having its own intentions be misinterpreted.

Chronicling the 2004 60 Minutes II report that charged President George W. Bush with avoiding the Vietnam War by relying on family connections to get into the Texas Air National Guard, the directorial debut of screenwriter James Vanderbilt takes on media consolidation, the fading line between entertainment and TV journalism, and the responsibility of reporters to ask tough questions of those in power. Based on CBS News producer Mary Mapes’ memoir, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, the movie stars Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as disgraced anchor Dan Rather, both of whom lost their jobs after sharp criticism of their story exposed major holes in their 60 Minutes II segment.

Truth boasts a sometimes-preachy tone, often voiced by combative reporter Mike Smith (played by Topher Grace), about the need to preserve a free press in an increasingly bottom-line-focused corporate culture. But in Vanderbilt’s drama, that stance is also laced with a bitter irony: Journalism’s high-minded principles don’t mean a thing if its practitioners do a bad job—which, in the case of the 60 Minutes II debacle, is what happened. Maybe Bush’s family friends did indeed intervene for him, and maybe corporate interests sometimes trump journalistic ethics in our modern age: What does it matter if the fundamental business of journalism, getting the story right, falls apart?

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Elisabeth Moss, Blanchett, Topher Grace, and Dennis Quaid in 'Truth.' (Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

Vanderbilt seems drawn to such nuanced true stories. In a career that has seen him become a go-to writer for big-budget spectacles like The Amazing Spider-Man and White House Down, Vanderbilt (who turns 40 next month) enjoyed his greatest critical triumph with his script for 2007’s masterful Zodiac, which documented the decade-plus search for the infamous Northern California killer, a quest that ensnared obsessive cops and newsmen but didn’t lead to finding the culprit. Similarly, Truth is a hunt undertaken with the best intentions that ends in heartache.

The connection between the two films seems obvious—well, obvious to everyone but Vanderbilt, who didn’t pick up on it until late in making Truth. “The older I get, the more I realize that certain types of stories I’m interested in,” he admits while relaxing in a Beverly Hills hotel suite. “When I first read Mary’s book, I don’t think I would have said, ‘Oh, it’s a lot like Zodiac.’ But now, I can see that a little clearer. I’m very interested in stories where people are a little bit subsumed in their work. I’m clearly interested in obsession—maybe in a slightly obsessive way,” he laughs sheepishly. “I don’t know why that’s so attractive to me as a writer and now as a director, but it really is.”

That inability to see what’s obvious about oneself seems appropriate for a film in which one of the great challenges facing these journalists is perceiving reality correctly. (And it harkens back to one of Vanderbilt’s first produced screenplays, the 2003 John Travolta-Samuel L. Jackson film Basic, a thriller featuring conflicting versions of the same incident.) In Truth, however, that lack of clarity extends to Mapes’ understanding of her inner drive to crack a story. As Vanderbilt explains, Mapes’ memoir focuses on the Bush story without delving into her own life or upbringing. The book fascinated him, but he wasn’t sure if there was a movie in it, so he had to figure out who these characters were as individuals.

“Part of my process as a writer on something like this is to see the people together and see how they really interact and start to go, ‘Oh, that relationship’s really interesting,’” Vanderbilt explains. And what he picked up on was a palpable father-daughter connection between Rather and Mapes, who had worked together since 1999. “There’s a conversation in the movie between Elisabeth Moss and Dennis Quaid on a plane where they’re talking about Mary’s childhood,” Vanderbilt says. “That came out of me talking with Mary about her childhood when she told me that she was the victim of abuse [by her father]. I said to her one day, ‘You used to get hit for asking questions, and you grew up to be a reporter?’ And she went, ‘Huh, I never thought about it that way.’” 

Vanderbilt continues: “It’s one of those things where, if you’re outside that person, it’s very easy for you to see that there’s a connection there. But if you are that person, you’re not gonna put that together. [She never said] ‘I think Dan is a bit of a surrogate father to me.’ But maybe if you asked her coworker, they would go, ‘Oh, yeah.’ That’s the fun part of this process—sort of uncovering all that good, fun stuff.”

When Vanderbilt first approached Mapes about making the movie a decade ago, she was reticent. But he was able to convince her, partly helped by asking Robert Graysmith, whose book was the basis for Zodiac and was played in the movie by Jake Gyllenhaal, to reach out to Mapes and assuage her concerns. According to Vanderbilt, both Mapes and Rather were generous with their time but hands-off in terms of how they would be portrayed. Truth is glued together by the Mapes-Rather bond, painting her as a dedicated, seasoned journalist who screwed up, the fallout of that mistake tearing apart the veneer of moral superiority she’s constructed to block out an unhappy childhood. But when asked if the movie is critical of the mistakes she and her team made, Vanderbilt avoids a straightforward response.

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'Truth' movie poster. (Photo: Courtesy of Sony Pictures)

“I want to be careful how I answer,” he says. “Not because I think it’s a tricky question, but just because…” Pausing to give the question some more thought, he finally offers, “I constructed the film the way I constructed the film on purpose. I want people to have their own interpretations of it. It was important for me to not make a ‘homework movie,’ to not make a movie that’s trying to lecture at you for two hours. This is a film where you’re gonna walk out and make up your own mind. That, to me, was the super-exciting thing about doing it.”

Vanderbilt laughs at his own response. “I don’t want to be, like, director-y and evasive,” he insists. “What I will say is I know that there are certainly people who are disappointed in Dan and Mary that they didn’t get [the story right]. People have very differing opinions about the level of quality of their work. I think it’s up to the viewer. My favorite films are the ones that ask questions at the end instead of give you answers. That was with Zodiac, too: ‘We’re gonna send you out of the theater, and you’re gonna have to think about it a little bit.’ And that’s what we tried to do here, too.”

Likewise, Vanderbilt downplays the importance of Truth’s decrying of a shifting media landscape in which serious news reporting gets shorter and shorter shrift. “Other writers may be different, but I’m never someone who goes, ‘I’d like to do a story about this subject’ and then finds that,” he says. “For me, it has to be the actual narrative and the character that grabs me first, and then all of the other stuff can come along with it.”

Speaking with the real Mike Smith, who has a dim view of media consolidation and its negative impact on journalism, Vanderbilt realized that point of view needed to be included in Truth. But like with some of his previous screenplays, Truth is ultimately about the inability to land on one simple resolution. “[Media consolidation] is certainly what [Mike Smith] believes to be an issue, and what other people talk about as being an issue, so we felt it was something that we had to reflect in the film,” he says. “But, again, it’s never about the homework of, ‘I’m going to lecture you or hector you about something.’ It’s more about taking you into this world. There are complications to this world—there are differing points of view in this world, and people arguing with each other. Everybody’s trying to do the right thing and get to their version of the truth.”