For anybody familiar with the Sydney skyline, there is a moment early on in this newsroom/political exposé that can be a little jarring. At a meeting ostensibly being held in Boston, outside the window can be seen the fairytale turrets of the Mark Foy’s building. To suggest, however, that the anomaly in some way undermines the theme of James Vanderbilt’s otherwise tense and pertinent (if no longer revelatory) movie is admittedly piffling, for there is an important issue at stake in the story. It concerns CBS TV’s 2004 investigation into the sham military career of the young George W Bush (as an Army Reserve pilot), who was then president. With Bush’s re-election campaign looming, the scoop was dynamite for the pair of veteran journos who aired it – long-serving anchorman Dan Rather (Robert Redford) and his producer and regular collaborator Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), who broke the Abu Ghraib story, as well as their hand-picked team.
Australian audiences might only vaguely recall the scandal and, with eleven years of water under the bridge, it definitely falls into the ‘cold case’ scenario, but the scourge of media bias, exploitation and outright bullshit continues unchecked (and too often unremarked upon). Believing that their sources were rock solid, Rather and Mapes went gung-ho at exposing the bellicose Bush’s faint-hearted service record while in uniform. Rather and Mapes took for granted that their sources were reliable and that the facts were of national importance, but they underestimated the wrath of those invisible powers and vested interests that always collude to kill truth. The first act, establishing the ‘rightness’ of Rather’s and Mapes’s crusade, is longer than it needs to be, but it builds powerfully and, with quality input from a number of locals, including Martin Sacks, Noni Hazelhurst and Andrew McFarlane, it’s as relevant now as it’s ever likely to be. At the close of his broadcasts, Rather would traditionally sign off with only one word, but it’s one that might yet counter today’s moral malaise: ‘courage’.