Words: Rob DeStefano
The opening night film comes with a great deal of excitement. This excitement comes with a price tag. You can do the simple breakdown; the couple in front of me handed over $70. In its 23rd incarnation, the Hamptons International Film Festival gave this honor to Truth. First time director James Vanderbilt assembled a star studded cast to dramatize the 2003 events surrounding Dan Rather and Mary Mapes’ questionable discredit to George W. Bush on 60 Minutes. In the opening comments prior to its screening, Truth was pitched as a thought provoker, bound to ruminate questions for the remaining four days of the festival. The only question I found myself asking: “How terrible does that couple feel for spending $70?”
Nice thoughts first. Even a poor film can shed light on a blind spot. I was not familiar with Mary Mapes and her contribution to journalism, specifically her role as a Pea-Body awarded producer behind CBS’ cover of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. I was even less familiar with the Killian documents controversy, a story she and Rather pushed – claiming Bush was handed a National Guard Position to avoid a Vietnam Draft – without verifying the documents. The ordeal calls to attention the bullying subjectivity of the media, but also, that of big brother.
What doesn’t work is the packaging of this undoubtedly intriguing story. The audience is hurled into it, as if in 2015 the only thing on our minds is the 2003 Killian discussion of typeface and typewriter compatibility. Characters, who we have yet to warm up to, throw phones in disgust or leap into the air with overjoyed exclamations. These emotions are in response to certain confessions, or lack thereof. I felt like I was watching an extended in-joke in which I was not allowed to partake.
The cast is stacked. Cate Blanchett (Mapes). Robert Redford (Rather). Dennis Quaid. Elisabeth Moss. Topher Grace and Bruce Greenwood. With the exception of Mapes, no other character grows past one dimension. It is a travesty what is done to Moss here. She is reduced to burping lines similar to, “Can you remind me why our main character is so important? Oh wow. That is important.” Topher Grace is given a late scene rant about the government’s hand in media. It is heavily reminiscent of Andrew Garfield’s showdown with Justin Timberlake in The Social Network, but void of every aspect that made that scene compelling.
Blanchett is front and center, and boy does she swing for the fences. She is normally superb. Here she is grating. Think 12th grade drama student giving her last performance to her beloved hometown. Maybe Mapes is this frustrating, but Blanchett plays it so over the top that she is barely capable of sharing a scene with her co-stars. She is the only character given a motivation (a history of paternal abuse), but she uses her proverbial Super Smash Brothers bat to shatter this over our heads as well.
Attention needs to go to Writer/Director James Vanderbilt who fails at developing weight and cinematic perspective. This is his directorial debut, but he is the man behind many unsuccessful screenplays such as the deceased The Amazing-Spiderman films and the abominable White House Down. I couldn’t help but to think of screenwriter turned director Dan Gilroy, whose Nightcrawler released this time last year. That was a confident project with at least one or two brilliantly scrutinizing scenes. Truth lacks style. Uninspired montages with a manipulative score do not build tension. What cuts it even further is Grace complaining about how he wants a pizza.
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