If it hadn’t already been used, “Proof” would serve as a better title for “Truth,” James Vanderbilt’s quaint account of the downfall of “60 Minutes” anchor Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett). In short, they didn’t have the former, so we’ll probably never know the latter.
Engrossing and occasionally moving, it doesn’t electrify like that other film about the press taking on a chief executive, Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (1976). That classic also stars Redford as another famous newsman, Watergate investigator Bob Woodward. But it celebrates a journalistic triumph. This one tries to make sense of a disaster.
In 2004, Mapes, fresh from breaking the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story, felt she had a scoop into then President George Bush’s National Guard service during the Vietnam War — documents and off-the-record witnesses indicated that Bush had not fulfilled his obligations.
Mapes assembled a crack team to investigate. Its thoughtfully balanced members were Mike Smith (Topher Grace), the scruffy rebel who you know will at some point give somebody the finger; Lieutenant Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid), a conservative who gives the investigation bipartisan cred; and Lucy Scott (Elisabeth Moss), who’s good at looking stuff up. Too bad they didn’t pay more attention to her.
And so followed the search for truth, related on film with such exciting stereotypes as timely messages left on answering machines, files furtively opened, and a hoary flashback narrative. Somehow they overlooked the spinning newspaper cliché. In his directorial debut, Vanderbilt shows little of the inventiveness David Fincher brought to Vanderbilt’s script for “Zodiac” (2007), in which another investigator gets lost in the search for truth.
But the perfunctory style does turn the spotlight on the performances. As Mapes, Blanchett recalls the neurosis of her self-medicated character in “Blue Jasmine,” but with a steely determination that transcends her simplistic back story involving an abusive father. As for Redford, can an actor recognized as an icon believably portray an equally iconic newsman? It takes a while, but the transition sneaks up on you, and by the time Rather utters his final sign-off — “Courage” — you almost believe him.
★ ★ ½
Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, based on the book “Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power” by Mary Mapes. Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid, Elisabeth Moss. Embassy and suburbs. 125 minutes. R (language and a brief nude photo).
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.