One of the best films I had the pleasure of seeing at this year’s Toronto Film Festival is Truth.
Directed by James Vanderbilt and adapted from former 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes’s 2005 memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, The President, and The Privilege of Power, the film reexamines the controversial 60 Minutes story questioning George W. Bush’s service record in the Air National Guard—heretofore known as the “Killian documents controversy” or “Rathergate.”
In the months prior to the 2004 presidential election, Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and his longtime producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) sought to confirm rumors that Bush had received preferential treatment while serving in the Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. As part of the evidence in their story, they focused on three memoranda allegedly authored by Bush’s commanding officer, Lt. Col. Jerry B. Killian, who’d passed away years ago. The 60 Minutes segment aired on September 8, 2004, but when the documents were proven to be false, the fallout was huge. Rather, the longtime CBS News anchor, was pressured into an early resignation, and Mapes was dragged before a review panel—co-chaired by Dick Thornburgh, U.S. Attorney General under George H.W. Bush—interrogated at length, and then fired.
The entire saga is captured in thrilling fashion in Truth, which boasts award-worthy turns from Blanchett as the embattled Mapes and Redford as the steady Rather. It opens on October 16. The Daily Beast sat down with Blanchett and Redford in New York for a wide-ranging conversation about George W. Bush, America’s mass shooting problem, and more.
We’ve just had yet another mass shooting in Oregon, and Cate, your home country of Australia is in a lot of ways the model for gun control—since, following the 1996 Port Arthur Massacre, Prime Minister John Howard enacted very strict gun control, and there have been few mass shootings there since.
Cate Blanchett: Doesn’t it have to do with the relationship this country has with its Founding Fathers and its Constitution? We’re trying to get changes to our Constitution to finally recognize indigenous Australians who were classified until 1969 as part of “flora and fauna.” We want to finally get constitutional recognition of them and it’s very difficult for a government to open the door to change the Constitution. But it seems profoundly impossible for this country to reassess that amendment that deals with the right to bear arms.
Robert Redford: I think when you get to the core of American life, it has to do with independence. We were a country founded on independence—we wanted to break away from England—so we were going to have our own rules and our own laws, and guns made that possible. And we needed guns to fight the British, fight the Indians, and all that. So that just sticks. And somehow, I think guns have become a symbol of our independence and they don’t want to give it up. They see it as an unalienable right that they don’t want to give up, and the NRA moves on it, and just uses that. But I think it’s really, really sad.It does seem to be an American problem. When you look at a country with few guns like Japan, there aren’t mass shootings. There’s the occasional mass stabbing, but stabbing someone is a far more intimate act than hiding behind the barrel of a gun.
Blanchett: It’s also analyzing just how many kids in schools in America are on medication and the FDA and the amount of corn syrup in food, and what that does. There’s a whole intersection of issues apart from guns themselves. Certainly I know my children get nervous about the idea of coming here and going into school, but yeah, it’s an issue.
Redford: I’m obviously very pro-nature. Art and nature, those two things come together for me. I remember raising my kids in New York when they were little, because I was in the theater. I had a place out West, this cabin in the mountains. I wanted to be completely free of any civilized stuff, and I wanted my kids to understand both worlds. I hunted in those early years because I started when I was a kid. We were sleeping outside in sleeping bags and I woke up one morning and the two kids I had at that time were there. I looked up and there was a deer that put its nose down at the foot of one of my children’s sleeping bags. I said, “That’s it.” When I saw that and I saw their reaction to it, I put the two together and said, “That’s it. There’s no more hunting. It’s over.”
It’s interesting. The film Truth is very much about journalism, and the importance of getting a story completely right. Take for example The New York Times and the Iraq War—we’ve had so many stories in this day and age crumble, and the consequences have been catastrophic.
Redford: That’s right. I think a lot of that has to do with the competition. The competition’s gotten so strong because there are so many voices out there, and it’s forced people who are in the lead like The New York Times to maybe rush it a little bit, and then they might stumble.
Blanchett: But in the country I live in [Australia], we have such a centralization of media ownership that in a way we don’t have enough outlets. So it’s a balance, isn’t it? Let’s say the Killian documents were actually real and this story was done properly. This story could have had major ramifications and swung the 2004 election in Kerry’s favor.
Blanchett: But could that have happened in September 2004? If Mary and Dan made a mistake, they underestimated the toxicity of the political atmosphere—and it was explosive whichever way it fell out. I hope that the film is presenting all the characters warts and all, but what it does point to is that the story very quickly got lost in the details. In a way, you can pick anything apart. There’s an interesting scene in the film where Mary says, “The documents are a very small part of the story,” but what happened was the horse had bolted, and because the story was rushed then they were open to criticism.
Redford: Now, they can take a small thing and enflame it on the other side. I think Dan and Mary probably underestimated the degree and the lengths that the other side would go to discredit the story. I think they were doing the best they could. They certainly knew they were going to be against the odds and knew what they were going after was going to create repercussions, but I don’t think they underestimated the degree, detail, and lengths the other side would go to discredit them.
Rather describes in his book how a Viacom lobbyist was on record stating that they tried to influence the story, and the fallout.
Blanchett: Well, Sumner [Redstone] is saying, “I vote for Viacom.” But that’s part of the atmosphere. The interesting thing is they’re guilty of rushing. What journalist doesn’t want to break the story first?
Where do you two fall on the subject of George W. Bush’s service in the Air National Guard? It does seem quite fishy.
Blanchett: Mary was accused of obsessively chasing the Bush/Guard story, but she lived in Texas, which she describes in the book hilariously as “the intergalactic capital of shit happens.” It’s such a great definition. If you’re going to report on politics, it’s the perfect place, and it really did balance out the East Coast-centric reporting on politics. But she had known of the story like a lot of journalists in Texas—that there had long been a question mark over Bush’s service—and the piece didn’t say it definitively, it just said, “We are raising these questions.” She got [General] Hodges to say it on the phone—and she still kicks herself to this day that she didn’t press “record”—but journalists write stories with unnamed sources, so they weren’t doing anything unusual.
Redford: How were they motivated? Maybe they were motivated by something that happened earlier that never got treated right, which was 9/11 and Bush and Cheney and Wolfowitz. What those guys did with Iraq we now know was pretty criminal. [Rather and Mapes] knew it, but the other side was successful in sliding past that. Maybe down deep somewhere was the motivation to write something and use it to right a wrong.
Rather and Mapes did screw up the story, though, and the bogus documents aside, did a lot of other things that were journalistically questionable—like producing all of the follow-up segments defending their work themselves.
Redford: It’s good that the film brings up that it was not flawless, their behavior, but it was motivated by speed and desire. With the election, they had to move quickly to have the full benefit of the story. One of the things I like about the script is that it points out those flaws—it’s not totally one-sided.
I know all presidents get a higher approval rating once they leave office, but how do you feel about George W. Bush having a positive approval rating post-presidency? It seems like a bizarre slice of revisionist history. Now, he’s being portrayed as this eccentric painter.
Redford: It’s insane. So much so that he’s going to be a benefit to his brother [Jeb], right? He’s changed the subject and been this down-home guy in Texas, and they forgot about the Iraq War and forgot about all the lies and so forth. Maybe we have a short attention span. But I’m with you on that one. Have we really forgotten the damage that Bush caused? But stories like this begin to hack at it and chip away at it.
Blanchett: I’ll never forget that moment with the second inauguration [of Bush] where, for the first time in American history, the cavalcade up to the White House was completely closed black cars. It was one of the most sinister things I’ve ever seen in my life.