Cate Blanchett talks about preparing for her new film Truth – and the demise of investigative journalism
HOW does a two-time Oscar-winning actress prepare for a role based on a real person? If you’re Cate Blanchett you do some of the obvious stuff: you read books and memoirs, you look them up online. If they’re still alive you might even meet them, although that’s not always strictly necessary: she still hasn’t met Bob Dylan, whom she played – brilliantly – in I’m Not There.
For her latest film Truth, a based-on-true-events TV news drama about the controversy that erupted when the flagship American current affairs programme 60 Minutes investigated President George Bush’s military service record in the run up to the 2004 election, Blanchett did all of the above. But in trying to lock down the essence of Mary Mapes, the producer who was fired when the veracity of the programme’s report was subsequently challenged, she found it useful to home in on more banal details.
“I wanted to know stupid, irrelevant things that an audience never needs to know – like what’s inside your handbag,” says Blanchett, sitting in a Soho hotel room on the morning of Truth’s London Film Festival premiere. “I was Skype-ing with her and she was showing me her friend’s dog that she was looking after. It’s useful to chat around things.”
What she was chatting around was Mapes’s status as an outsider working in the male-dominated centre of America’s East Coast news organisations. Blanchett needed to figure out how Mapes dealt with that, particularly in the midst of chasing down a story that destroyed her career.
READ MORE: CBS news crew sacked over Bush blunder
For those unfamiliar with that story, the film explores the drama surrounding the 60 Minutes investigation into whether Bush’s family connections allowed him to shirk his commitments with the Texas Air National Guard at a time when he could have been drafted for Vietnam. Co-starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather, the veteran news anchor who nobly backed up Mapes as their CBS employers beat a hasty retreat from the story, the film explores the degree to which the validity of their enquiry was obscured by an avalanche of extraneous details and agenda-laden counter-claims in the run up to Bush’s re-election.
Though the film is based on Mapes’s book Truth And Duty: The Press, The President, And The Privilege Of Power, Blanchett wasn’t interested in valorising her. “You’ve got to present everyone as flawed and Mary is the first one to say that about herself. My job is to try and make them tick and then place that in the freight train that is the story.”
After she read director James Vanderbilt’s script for Truth, Blanchett became fascinated by the state of emotional lockdown Mapes was in following the scandal. “And then I met her,” she says. “And I couldn’t believe this firebrand; this ball of energy who was incredibly engaged and curious. So I found her extremes quite interesting and thought, well, she must be somewhere in the middle.”
Hence the probing of banal details: she wanted to find some truthful version of what was, by then, a very public persona.
Yet what interested her most about the film was that it was about putting a story together. Like the recent Spotlight, Truth takes place just as social media was starting to impact the way news is disseminated, compounding a problem caused years earlier by the insistence on news divisions also turning a profit.
“The only reason to re-examine something that happens in the past is if it has some contemporary relevance,” says Blanchett. “And I think Mary and Dan found themselves in quite uncharted waters. Not only in relation to the news organisations with which they’d developed their careers, but also that sort of invisible opinionating that we just take as fact, frankly, a lot of time on the internet.”
Blanchett says Mapes isn’t bitter about what happened to her. “I think she alternated between rage and despair at how quickly the truth of the story was lost in a smokescreen of details. Journalists are not in the legal profession. Their job is to ask the questions and somehow the questions were getting lost. But there’s definitely a wound and the wound’s still there at CBS too.”
That certainly seems to be the case. When the film was released in the US last year, CBS refused to run adverts, denouncing it as “a disservice not just to the public but to journalists across the world”.
One of the ironies of Truth, then, is that people will inevitably question whether or not the film has its own agenda. “It’s curious,” says Blanchett. “Obviously the wound is still open for CBS. But there’s a universality to this story that transcends the particulars of CBS, or Mary or Dan. It’s more about the demise of investigative journalism.”
The casting of Redford as Rather – whose career also came to an end thanks to his involvement – makes that more poignant. Redford did, after all, star in All The President’s Men, still the gold standard when it comes to movies about journalism. “It was a boon and a privilege to have Bob in the film,” says Blanchett. “And not only because he was in All The President’s Men and therefore invites a bookend comparison between Truth and the landscape All The President’s Men describes. It was also a privilege because he’s an extraordinary actor and has been so inside American culture for so long he’s absolutely fascinating to be around.”
In career terms, Blanchett isn’t doing badly herself. Reuniting with her I’m Not There director Todd Haynes to make Carol last year, she’s in the running tonight for a third Oscar. If she wins, she’ll be on her way to matching the record set by quadruple winner Katharine Hepburn, whom she played in The Aviator, winning – appropriately enough – her first Oscar in the process.
“I’ve had an embarrassment of riches in the last couple of years,” says Blanchett. “To work with Todd again and to make Truth, that doesn’t often happen within an 18-month period. You grasp those things with both hands.”
• Truth is on general release from Friday