This movie flew under my radar. I saw it on my Netflix DVD queue, thought I’d give it a whirl, despite the fact that it was basically a flop. And I understand why it flopped. It deals with a news story from 2004, one that I think the American public never understood all that well, and has basically stopped caring about. That issue is now called “The Killian documents scandal,” an inelegant sobriquet. And although the film deals with that scandal intelligently and with conviction, and explains everything pretty clearly, it also has a discernible point of view which it hopes we’ll agree with at the end. I did. So did my wife. Not sure how much it matters.
In the fall of 2004, Mary Mapes (beautifully played here by Cate Blanchett), a producer with CBS News, again picked up the thread of a news story she had been looking at in 2000. It had to do with the military service of George W. Bush with the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam war. Together with a retired Marine Lt. Colonel, Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), and two reporters, Mike Smith (Topher Grace) and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), Mapes tracked down those few documents regarding the President’s service that the Bush camp was able to produce.
Mapes was one of Dan Rather’s (Robert Redford’s) producers. In the news business, the producer writes the story, works with the on-air talent to conduct the interviews, and edits what airs. Mapes was convinced that Bush had essentially been AWOL for a substantial part of his military commitment, and that his superiors hadn’t pursued it, because Bush was the son of a Congressman. She also believed that highly placed Texas politicians had pulled strings to get Bush a cushy National Guard assignment. Most of the other National Guard recruits were, like Bush, sons of political power brokers; also in the Guard were several star players for the Dallas Cowboys football team. Some National Guard companies did serve with distinction in Vietnam. But the Texas Air National Guard never did serve overseas, and was unlikely ever to have done so. It was a cozy sinecure. And the film does a nice job of explaining all that.
While working on the story, Mapes came into the possession of photocopies of a number of memos written by Lt. Colonel Jerry Killian, since deceased. Killian was Bush’s commanding officer during his Guard service. They were given to her by an elderly retired military officer named Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). Because they were photocopies, and because the language of the memos suggested a familiarity with the period and with military protocols from the early 70s, Mapes decided to use them. She did send them to four separate document authenticators, two of whom declared them authentic, and two of whom said they couldn’t without seeing the originals. The documents made up a small part of the overall story, and Mapes used them without hesitation.
After the story aired on Sixty Minutes, however, a number of bloggers with an expertise in the documents field questioned the documents’ authenticity. Many people suggested that the Killian documents were the clumsiest of forgeries, using proportional spacing, a feature not generally available on typewriters in 1972. The documents, they said, had probably been created on Microsoft Word. Eventually, the Killian documents, which were not really an important part of the original news story, dominated coverage of it. Eventually, Mapes was asked to resign, along with several other CBS News employees. Including, of course, Dan Rather.
This movie argues, with great clarity and passion, that the documents could have been genuine, and that the larger story, about the President’s military service, had been ignored. To the extent that anyone today cares about the Killian documents, I think it’s fair to say that the consensus opinion is that the documents were forgeries. Burkett admitted to having lied to Mapes about where he obtained them (a painful scene, with Keach splendidly elderly and humiliated).
What I suspect is that the only people who really care about this are hard-core conservatives, who see it as confirming the ‘liberal-media-out-to-get-conservatives’ narrative. I think that most folks have forgotten this was ever a thing. If we see Dan Rather on Rachel Maddow’s show, we may remember ‘wasn’t there a controversy involving him?’ And when we saw that there was a film about ‘the Dan Rather thing,’ we gave it a pass.
I liked it better than that. Not that everything in the movie works. There’s an awkward, earnest scene late in the film in which Topher Grace (who’s great in this) gives a speech outlining a conspiracy theory in which Viacom (in need of legislative support), pressured CBS to fire Mapes and Rather. That’s all possible, of course. Likewise, the chance that, upon seeing the 60 Minutes piece, that Karl Rove orchestrated a campaign to discredit the one part of the story that could most effectively be discredited, the documents. (Karl Rove! Surely not!).
In the TV miniseries, The People vs. OJ Simpson, which my daughter and I have been watching, there’s a scene where Sarah Paulson, playing Marcia Clark (the main OJ prosecutor) goes into a bar and is challenged by one patron, who says ‘the police framed OJ.’ Clark goes ‘okay, let’s talk about that,’ and then goes through all the evidence to show exactly the convolutions the cops would have had to go through to frame OJ, just how extraordinarily baroque that theory is. And the bar patrons just sit there, astonished and persuaded. There’s a similar scene in Truth, in which Mapes demonstrates just how far-fetched the idea of creating a forgery was. I found it similarly convincing. But I cared a lot less.
And that’s weird. The one show is about a murder trial; the stakes high enough for the families of the victims, but the whole thing didn’t really affect us at all. And the situation in Truth involves the election of a President, a much more consequential thing. But I cared about the OJ scene a lot more than I cared about the analogous scene involving Bush’s military service. The one feels like political/historical esoterica. The other feels more personal. Same scene, different impact.
Bush is gone, out of office. We’re in a new political season, a much stranger one. Watch Truth, then watch the news. It’ll shock you how much things have changed. And how very little.