Back Stories: Examine the meaning of truth in politics and broadcast news.

Long ago, in a galaxy far, far away, where the Congress knew how to pick a speaker of the House, the late Thomas O’Neill, known as Tip, was quoted as saying, “All politics is local,” meaning that all politics is personal. Which means, taking it one small step further, that all politics is ego.

That has never seemed more true than in what we might call the quasi-reality-based American political scene of the present day, as we watch the various candidates strive to make their base voters as secure as possible in all their various presumptions, preconceptions and outright biases. And it is certainly true in the film world of Our Brand Is Crisis, which stars Sandra Bullock as an American political operative hired to save the campaign of a floundering Bolivian presidential candidate.

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Bullock’s Jane Bodine, an export of dubious moral worth, lays it on the line: “The truth is whatever I tell the electorate the truth is,” she says during the “interview” by which the director David Gordon Green bookends his movie (which was “suggested” by Rachel Boynton’s 2005 documentary of the same name about the consulting firm Greenberg Carville Shrum and its successful work on behalf of a failing Bolivian candidate in 2002). Jane Bodine is not nice. Needless to say, she gets nicer.

Not so much Billy Bob Thornton, whose character, Pat Candy, is obviously meant to represent the ubiquitous James Carville. He is not actually as unlikable as he is unreliable, but neither is Bodine—“Calamity Jane,” as she has come to be known. “I thought you retired, or gave up, or something,” Candy says to Bodine, trying to provoke her, which he successfully does almost throughout a story in which the private, Machiavellian grudge match between two sharply intelligent, calculating individuals is allowed to trump (no pun intended) the welfare of an entire nation.

Like an old frontier gunslinger, Bodine has to be dragged out of retirement by a couple of former associates (Ann Dowd, Anthony Mackie), having exiled herself from politics in the wake of a campaign in which dirty tricks led to the suicide of a candidate’s daughter. The facts are murky, and frankly they do not much matter: Bodine and Candy were both involved in the catastrophe, they each know more about the other than they should, and there is a resulting tension between them, romantic and otherwise, that enlivens the movie even at its most wonkish.

It is a political movie, of course, and as such has to dwell in the unlovely, and one can see Green struggling to put some visual juice in it through wacky montages—the always reliable dance-club scenes, for instance, or Bodine’s night out with some local boys, which ends in a jail cell. But the thrust of the story is the manipulation of the voter (all too easy), the bending of facts and the infighting among parties who are supposed to be united in a cause, even when that cause is questionable.

The cause here is the relatively charm-free Senator Castillo (Joaquim de Almeida), who is enjoying Bobby Jindal-style numbers in Bolivia’s presidential polling. Bodine is supposed to save him, but she takes one look and concludes, “He’s not a winner.” She will make him one, by changing the upbeat narrative of the election to one of dire consequences—the “crisis” of the title, which becomes the “brand” of Castillo.

It is a cynical movie, naturally, being as it is about the dirty truths of politics. But it is a Hollywood movie, too, and is required to provide a certain degree of redemption. Not too much, though. It may not be a documentary, but it has to be believable.

Calamity Jane has her definition of truth, but in the movie Truth, it is something different—and possibly more slippery. Starring Cate Blanchett and Robert Redford, the film concerns the “60 Minutes II” scandal of 2004, in which the team of producer Mary Mapes and her longtime collaborator, the CBS anchor Dan Rather, accused George W. Bush not only of draft-dodging but of being a no-show in the “champagne unit” of the Texas Air National Guard (so called because it provided an easy, Vietnam-era refuge for the sons of politicians and seven members of the Dallas Cowboys).

Directed with considerable energy by the fledgling director James Vanderbilt, it is based on Mapes’s memoir Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power and follows its line of argument: that Mapes was the victim, not only of the conservative blogosphere and G.O.P. forces out to save Bush’s candidacy (he was polling slightly behind John Kerry at the time) but of CBS executives who, at the behest of their superiors at parent Viacom, wanted to make nice with the White House.

One of the things “Truth” is quite honest about is the oxymoronic ethos of the news business in general—i.e., always be right, always be first. It is actually a minor miracle that the news is as accurate as it is, given the competing interests at work and the evanescent nature of facts. Mapes (Blanchett) and her team (played by Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elizabeth Moss) think they have the goods on Bush, even though the documents they are working with are photocopies and the guy from whom they got them—Lt. Col. Bill Burkett (Stacey Keach), formerly of the Guard—is a known Bush critic. Shortcuts are taken. When a spot for the story opens up on the weekday edition of “60 Minutes,” they rush it onto the air. The result is sensational.

And almost immediately, holes start getting punched into the reportage, initially online (it was the most significant story involving news and the Internet up until that time). Did anyone notice, for instance, that the document accusing Bush—which CBS’s experts had not been able to verify—could be very easily duplicated on Microsoft Word?

It was a fiasco. The veteran Rather retired in the wake of the story/backlash; Mapes was fired and has not worked in television news again.

What is fascinating in the wake of the movie, however, is the way the two sides have lined up against each other once again. It is all about due diligence and documents and whether Mapes was inept (unlikely: she was awarded a Peabody, some time after the Bush segment aired, for having broken the Abu Ghraib scandal earlier in 2004). No one questions whether or not Bush shirked his duty. In fact, they seem to assume he did, since it would have been so in character. The argument still is all about the reliability of the documents and about CBS executives past and present being shocked—shocked!—that anyone would accuse them of allowing politics or profits to get in the way of their fealty to honest journalism.

Egos, just as in Sandra Bullock’s Bolivia, are what it’s all about. And like Bullock’s Jane Bodine, Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes says something far more profound than George W. Bush, though critics are unlikely to bring it up. Blanchett plays Mapes as a woman on the verge of hysteria (if one can be allowed to resort to a 19th-century diagnosis). Her scorched-earth policy for getting the story can be read as part of her character and the kind of personality that would succeed in network news. But she is also a woman. And one cannot escape the conclusion that Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes has always felt that she had to be twice as good to go half as far and that her career was living story to story. Turns out she was right: In the wake of “Rathergate,” and with all that blame to go around, she was the only one who lost her job.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Robert O'Connell
2 years 5 months ago
Jesus asks that we love our enemies. Answering that call strikes me as more important than the tail end of the "No one questions whether or not Bush shirked his duty. In fact, they seem to assume he did, since it would have been so in character." If we chose civility over snideness, attention to current challenges over faultifinding (whether accurate or not) in regard to old issues, and used our energy to try help each other, neither politics nor the media would be as dectructive as they seem to be today.

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