Truth tells the gripping real life story of journalist Mary Mapes and CBS news anchor Dan Rather. The two launched an investigation into George W. Bush’s service as a pilot for the Texas Air National Guard and sought to find out whether favouritism and family connections had allowed him to shirk his duty. This story was broadcast on 60 Minutes II, the Wednesday edition of 60 Minutes, during the 2004 Presidential election, and what followed had consequences for modern journalism that can still be felt today.
In the words of Dan Rather himself, “This film is about what has happened to the reporting of news, how and why it's happened, and why you should care.”
But for the film’s writer and director, James Vanderbilt, the film was also an opportunity to show exactly how these groundbreaking news stories are put together by reporters. Vanderbilt was no stranger to stories about journalists, having grown up with films like All the President’s Men and being a co-producer on Zodiac, whose plot revolved heavily around the events at the San Francisco Chronicle.
“I've always been intrigued with what goes on in newsrooms,” Vanderbilt says. “When a big story breaks on 60 Minutes, how does that happen? How does the sausage get made?””
So how does the sausage get made? A large part of Truth deals with just that question.
Mapes describes the process as an information gathering exercise, with every member of the team going to fetch relevant evidence and sources before figuring out how they can be put together. She explains, “You take all those disparate pieces and you put it together into a puzzle where a picture forms and then you go out and tell people, ‘Look at the picture.’”
Vanderbilt found himself replicating that same process when researching the film. Although it’s based on Mary Mapes’s memoir of the events, in order to ensure the fidelity of the final film Vanderbilt practically became a journalist himself.
“I knew Mary’s book was a really good jumping off point in terms of her view of things,” says Vanderbilt, “But, especially in something that’s contentious, there are going to be many sides to the story. I really wanted to do the homework as much as I could.”
Vanderbilt talked to everyone he could related to the story, not just Rather and Mapes, but also to everyone from Mike Smith, a freelance journalist that was on Mapes’s investigatory team, to Josh Howard, the executive producer of 60 Minutes II, as well as many more people, some of whom weren't sympathetic to Mary’s side of the story. Vanderbilt was as thorough as any journalist in trying to tell his story, double-sourcing everything that got put in the film.
It’s safe to say that the hard work paid off. When Dan Rather describes the screenplay he says, “It’s not just pretty accurate, it’s astonishingly accurate.”