Oscar-winner Cate Blanchett (The Aviator and Blue Jasmine) stars as Mary Mapes, a Peabody Award-winning journalist who became notable for her coverage of the Abu Ghraib prison and torture story. In June 2004, she pitched what ended up being her final story to her bosses for a segment on 60 Minutes. The film follows her dogged pursuit to uncover the truth about the story and how her process to do so gets totally and almost completely deconstructed.
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, it’s reminiscent of the similar docudrama Shattered Glass (2003). The difference is in that 2003 film, the journalist in the center, Stephen Glass, was outright deceiving people. Here, in this film, the journalist in the center, Mary Mapes, was the one who was being deceived. Unfortunately, no one really sees this difference. People think Mapes is just as much a liar as Glass.
Yet, this film isn’t about how horrible Mapes was, which is understandable being that the film is based on her own book. It could be dismissed by those on the political right as easily as American Sniper was by some on the political left. Except, Vanderbilt gives some credence to the other side than Clint Eastwood did and is a bit more balanced. It does ultimately land on her side, but whatever the truth is, this film is more about how given the way things are, we’ll often never know what that is because those who disagree will always find ways to tear it down.
However, as much on her side as the film is, it does illustrate how a journalist, even one as good as Mapes, can make mistakes in a rush to get something on the air. She does a lot of things wrong. She does a lot of things right too, but ultimately her source lied to her. What gets muddled is that he lied to her about something that was probably true, but, because it was packaged in a lie, the true thing inside is then tainted.
It’s good that Blanchett’s character isn’t as righteous and as self-righteous as Al Pacino’s character in The Insider (1999), which is the film about another controversial story for CBS News. The difference in that case was the story was one CBS refused to air, whereas this film is about a story that CBS aired that it then regretted.
The lesson that one can glean from both is that a news organization should not be scared, or it shouldn’t play it safe. I’m not advocating that any news organization lie or manipulate information to fit a certain narrative. The film establishes that political bias might lead certain journalists to favor certain stories, but, as long as the journalist is open and honest about his or her process, and there’s transparency in what they do, then it’s fine.
Say what you want about Mapes, but she was open and honest about her process. She was transparent. Again, she wasn’t perfect. She did make mistakes. She did do a rush job, but she’s not the incompetent or the partisan that people label her. Blanchett gives a terrific performance, and Vanderbilt is able to layer in some great back story involving Mapes’ father, a staunch conservative.
Robert Redford (All the President’s Men and All is Lost) co-stars as Dan Rather himself. One would hope that his character takes as much of a lead role as David Strathairn did as CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, And Good Luck (2005). Redford does a good impression of Rather and inhabits him somewhat, but he’s more relegated to the same position that Christopher Plummer was as CBS correspondent Mike Wallace in The Insider. Redford’s placement is somewhere between these two both functionally and artistically-rated.
There are good supporting performances that make the film a bit more fun. Topher Grace as freelance journalist Mike Smith, John Benjamin Hickey as Mark Wrolstad, the husband of Mapes, Stacy Keach (pictured above) as Lt. Col. Bill Burkett, and Noni Hazlehurst (also pictured above) as Nicki Burkett, the colonel’s wife, are all given great moments that fill out this world.
Five Stars out of Five.
Rated R for language and a brief nude photo.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 1 min.