Seeking ‘Truth’: James Vanderbilt recalls the scandal that gave a black eye to '60 Minutes'

Features
Movies Features
Filmmakers

Cate Blanchett, the Meryl Streep from Down Under, is a veritable magnet for great movie roles—they just somehow mysteriously find her—but in order to film Truth, her screen magnetism pulled an entire movie crew to her backyard in Sydney.

A cinematically prolific actress, Blanchett requested a little more quality time with her husband and three sons, so the producers agreed to shoot Truth in Australia and, accordingly, found plausible facsimiles for the two major locales in the film—a suburban Dallas home and the “Black Rock” that is CBS’s New York headquarters. It might just be the biggest studio concession to a star since 20th Century-Fox turned Paris into Las Vegas to mollify Elizabeth Taylor for The Only Game in Town in 1970.

Whatever, it’s a small price to pay for Blanchett’s dynamo portrayal of Mary Mapes, the “60 Minutes” producer whose career at CBS News crashed and burned following attacks on her team’s reporting and prompted the retirement of network news anchor Dan Rather. They aired a segment critical of the military service of President George W. Bush, asserting that family influence helped him as a young officer in 1968 duck a tour of duty in Vietnam for a safe, comfy spot in the Texas Air National Guard.

At the end of the day, CBS couldn’t confirm or particularly refute the authenticity of the documents about Bush’s military record. Hit on the right by a Republican smear campaign on the Internet and at home by the “corporatized” Powers-That-Be at CBS, Mapes was canned on January 10, 2005, ten days before Bush began his second term.

But she remains unrepentant, as does Rather, who, at a recent screening of Truth, said, “We reported a true story, and there has never been any doubt the story was true.” The fault, he feels, rested with his corporate bosses who bowed to White House pressure and sacrificed Mapes. She hasn’t worked in television news since.

First-time feature director James Vanderbilt put up no resistance to Aussi-fying all of the above, but then he wrote the script from Mapes’ blow-by-blow bestseller, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power—and tailored the part to Blanchett (not that she doesn’t make adjustments, regardless of the role).

Blanchett is, of all things, half-Texan (her father was a U.S. Navy petty officer whose ship broke down in Melbourne), but those surprisingly real roots wouldn’t have helped her here, since Mapes was born in Washington State and hooked up with CBS News in Texas in 1989, joining Rather the following year as his exclusive producer.

But Blanchett, like Streep, is a master of accents (remember her Oscar-winning Katharine Hepburn in The Aviator?), so she put a lot of art and energy into catching the sound between Seattle and Dallas. “It’s not a thick Texas accent,” Vanderbilt notes. “It comes out more in the way she says certain words and in the colloquialisms. It wasn’t an impression at all. She worked hard to layer that in and get it right. She wanted to give this performance in a voice that’s wasn’t her own.”

And the actress’s thoroughness, he said, didn’t stop there. “There’s one line at the beginning about Mary knitting, so we had a scene of her knitting, and Cate became a knitter to justify that line of dialogue. Between every take, she’d be off knitting, knitting, knitting, just to do that one moment. Now, that’s the dedication of an actor.”

In several conspicuous ways, Truth is the flip side (or, more precisely, the flop side) of All the President’s Men, the Oscar winner from almost 40 years ago about how a pair of Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, brought down the presidency of Richard Nixon. Although both investigations began on the same earnest, high-minded plain of journalism, Bush’s military record was harder to nail down than the Watergate ruckus, and it boomeranged badly on the fact-finders.

Fittingly, the Bob Woodward from the earlier film, Robert Redford, was comfortably recruited to play Rather here—a simple case of one icon replacing another—and, although the physical facsimile isn’t there, the bearing and charisma definitely are.

“That’s really what I was shooting for,” the director readily confesses. “When I told people that I wanted to cast Bob as Dan, there were a couple of people who said, ‘Are you sure? Because they don’t really resemble each other.’ I said, ‘But I think it’s more about the essence of who Dan is and the essence of who Bob is. They have that same gravitas, and they sort of occupy similar places in the American firmament.”

Rather’s was a voice that retained its homegrown Southern lilt, and Redford makes a token attempt of dropping a few g’s to approximate the Texas accent. “Dan’s accent can get thick at times, and Bob did enough to sort of honor that, but not so much that you’re listening to him put on a twang and feel like, ‘Hey, Redford’s doing an accent.’

“That is a testament to his skill. He’s a very subtle actor, in the best possible way. He knows that the camera picks up everything, so he can do just a little of this and a little of that, and he knows when you’re looking at it 30 feet high it’s going to have this effect or that effect. It’s a wonderful thing as a director to have at your disposal.”

As if this star power weren’t intimidating enough, Vanderbilt had to contend with the fact that Redford won an Oscar for his first directorial effort (1980’s Ordinary People). Happily, the star allayed Vanderbilt’s worries at the outset. “He’s absolutely aware of the aura he has. Very early on, we went to dinner, and he said, ‘Now you’re the director of the picture. I am here as an actor. I am not going to look at the monitor. That’s your job. I’m not going to worry about how the film looks or what the shot is. I’m relying on you for that. I’m here to act and be in this film.’ That was such an amazing gift because I know, ‘Okay, this is what our relationship is going to be.’”

Rather also made Vanderbilt’s double duty as adapter and director easier. “Dan’s been amazing. He didn’t need to open his doors to us, but we were lucky he did. He always knew that I was going to go away and make the film I was going to make. He did read a draft of the script, but there was never an approval with that, and he never gave script notes. He would give notes if I would say, ‘What did that feel like?’

“By the time I had written the first draft of the script, he had given all of the input he was going to give. On the odd day, I’d call him up and say, ‘Dan, I have a question about X. How do you remember this?’ And Mary was the same way. But most of their input was in the research stage, just trying to get it accurate. Also, watching them interact was an incredible gift for me—not getting facts from them but just how they treat each other, how they crack each other up, how they protect each other.

“One of the really fun things about my job is that I actually get to go and do that. I get to sit with somebody and talk about their job, sort of walk a mile in their shoes, then take all that information and try to put it into a film in an entertaining and, hopefully, intelligent way. It was important for me to make it feel authentic. I wanted to get the texture of it right. All the factual stuff is verifiable, so for that you just do your homework and nail that down, but the interaction of how the newsroom feels, how reporters talk to one another—that you can only get by spending time with people and do that deep dive. I feel really privileged because I get paid to do that.”

Freshly turned 40, Vanderbilt took the Billy Wilder route to the director’s chair by doing his storytelling first as a screenwriter. He scripted enough successful films (two Amazing Spider-Man flicks, among them) that he finally had the clout to pull a Stallone: “Sylvester said, ‘You don’t get to make this movie unless I get to be Rocky,’ so I said, ‘You don’t get to make this movie unless I get to direct it.’ Luckily, they agreed. I never wanted anyone else to direct it. This one I wanted for myself.”

Directing has been gnawing at him for eight years, ever since he scripted Zodiac, David Fincher’s cult thriller about tracking down a San Francisco serial killer. “Zodiac was one of the best creative experiences I ever had,” he admits. “After watching David do that, I started wondering if I would enjoy that process. As a screenwriter, you break through, you make it up and you carry the ball for a while, but then you hand it off, so after Zodiac I decided that I would love to see if I could carry the ball all the way across the goal line, just to see if I was decent at it.”

Zodiac and Truth tell a similar story. Both movies are about intense investigations, conducted by obsessed individuals. “It was pointed out to me—I hadn’t realized it before—that I’m apparently attracted to stories about people who have very strong work lives and get sucked down the rabbit hole of trying to put a story together or trying to find the answers to something.”

Mapes’ book struck that chord in Vanderbilt. He was predisposed to it anyway. “I love writing. This is my first love. If you asked me what I did for a living, I would say, ‘I’m a writer’—and, if I can be a writer who also directs, that’s phenomenal. There are some movies that I get to work on—$175-million budget films—that I don’t know if I want to be responsible for that amount of money as a director. But when you make a film like Truth, if you’re lucky enough to get actors like this, you can really do something that’s off the beaten path and, just maybe, even exceptional.”

One of the Vanderbilts, James is one who comes with a genuine news-gathering gene: CNN’s Anderson Cooper is a second cousin. (Gloria Vanderbilt is a first cousin, and Timothy Olyphant is a third cousin.) At one time, he seriously thought of becoming a journalist. “I was considering it, but I never pulled the trigger,” he says. “It was always The Road Not Taken for me. But my fascination with journalism and that world continued, so when I read Mary’s book, it seemed like perfect material for me.

“I actually went to film school for screenwriting. There were a lot of film students at USC who looked at screenwriting as a way to get to direct, but I was always contrary to that. I thought, ‘Screenwriting is an art, it has a great and storied history, and there are wonderful writers—Paddy Chayefsky, David Mamet, William Goldman…”

Now, he’s one of them—and he’s staying one of them. For his next project, Vanderbilt “relapsed” into writing Independence Day 3 for director Roland Emmerich. But he’s hardly abandoned the idea of hyphenating himself again. “There are a couple of things I’m writing that I want to direct. I’m not sure which one will go first but, honestly, I’m just really excited to see my firstborn out there in the marketplace.”