Lately, what with the seismic shifts in news media of all kinds, there have been a bunch of movies about relatively recent press scandals – The Fifth Estate and Oliver Stone’s upcoming Snowden zero in on the world of wikileaks and Anonymous, but Spotlight and Truth, set in the early 2000s, look back to a time which might be passing away in which big stories were broken by crusading newspapers (Spotlight) and TV journalism (Truth). Spotlight (set in 2001-2) downplays its end-of-an-era angle, but Truth (set before and after the 2004 US election) is angrier about the way things have changed – there’s a blistering standout grandstand speech from TV producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) about the way an expose of President GW Bush’s service record is derailed by an inquisition that gets the whole world talking about fonts and superscripts in such tedious and extensive detail that the (essentially true and damning) story is set aside entirely.
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt – writer of Zodiac and, um, White House Down – from Mapes’ memoir, this doesn’t really address the question of cock-up or conspiracy. There are several infodumps about the corporate ownership of news media, how relationships between megacorps and government might skew reporting (with a brief glimpse of a Satanic Fox News logo) and how the networks caught on to the fact that their initially loss-making public service news divisions could turn a profit – but we never know whether the collapse of the story after it’s aired, which hinges on a couple of copied memos of debatable provenance, is down to a canny campaign orchestrated by the dark geniuses of the Bush Administration (Karl Rove gets a mention) or just the way an easily-distracted public can be swayed by dilettante internet nit-pickers who don’t labour under the burden of accountability that CBS news does. There are slightly too many opportunities for Blanchett to have bytes of despair and heroism suitable for awards show clips, though one chilling moment of vulnerability as she pleads with her estranged, abusive father to stop slamming her on shock jock radio shows is aptly terrifying. Like Spotlight, it looks to All the President’s Men as a model – with Robert Redford aptly cast as senior news anchor Dan Rather – but it also has inevitable echoes of The Insider, another jittery drama based on the thorny putting-together and neutering of an item for CBS’s 60 Minutes, and Network, whose nightmare prophecies about television now seem quaint and tame.
Supporting Blanchett and Redford are an array of neatly-characterised researchers and leg-men who don’t get enough screen time – Dennis Quaid is especially vivid as the ex-military man contemptuous of Bush’s behaviour (at the time, the Republicans are trying to demolish Vietnam veteran candidate John Kerry’s war record), but Topher Grace is funny as the driven slacker who feeds Mapes lines and Elizabeth Moss bright in moments as handling interviews with testy witnesses. Stacy Keach is the wheezing source, who remains a mystery figure, and Noni Hazelhurst gets a sobering moment condemning the reporters for their treatment of the man. Bruce Greenwood, Rachel Blake, John Benjamin Hickey and Dermot Mulroney are the suits – who aren’t necessarily demonised in that some of them lose their jobs too and there’s a possibility that Mapes’ team slipped or were duped along the way while putting this report together, coasting after an award-winning and uncontested piece (which must have deeply embarrassed the administration and brought pressure to bear on Viacom) about abuses at Abu Ghraib.
While Spotlight (in which crusading media prevail) has had a ton of awards attention, Truth (in which crusading media are crushed) hasn’t even racked up nominations (Blanchett’s campaign probably focused more on Carol). They’re about even as movies go, and Truth might even have an edge as drama, so you have to take away the lesson that, in this case, bad news sells less than good.