One of the more difficult aspects to swallow regarding the un-level playing fields of the 2004 Presidential Election Campaign were rather scurrilous claims regarding Senator John Kerry’s Vietnam War record. They proved to be totally unfounded but only after they had caused unrepairable damage. At the very same time there questions were raised about the service record of the other candidate, the sitting President George Bush, who had managed to avoid fighting overseas completely by opting for a much safer role in the Air National Guard.
When Mary Mapes a senior Producer at CBS who was responsible for the prestigious 60 Minutes TV Program led by veteran newsman Dan Rather, got wind of a potential story about Bush managing to avoid even his easy stint with the Guard, she started a whole investigation. With the approval of the Network’s bosses, and encouraged by Rather, she got together a small very experienced team to check out documents purportedly from the files of Bush’s commanding officer, the late Lieutenant Colonel Jerry B Killian that confirmed that Bush had been been AWOL for most of his alleged military service. Mapes had learned that the then-Texas Lieutenant Governor Ben Barnes had admitted making phone calls to get Bush into the Guard, as he claimed to have done for the children of several other influential Texans. The story was that Bush had received preferential treatment in passing over hundreds of applicants to enlist in the Texas Air National Guard in order to avoid being drafted and sent to fight in Vietnam after he had graduated from Yale in 1968.
When the 60 Minute team had gathered substantial evidence supporting the claims their aired their findings in a special edition of their show, but before Rather and Mapes could even celebrate their major news coup, they were immediately subject to some to some very virulent criticism. It all focused on the actual authenticity of the documents that they had received from Bill Burkett, who was a retired Lt. Colonel with the Guard. Suddenly there was a very aggressive and effective campaign mounted to discredit the entire 60 Minute Team by some very influential and important political figures simply by rubbishing the validity of the evidence. It eventually resulted in Rather prematurely ending his distinguished career in disgrace and ignominy, and Mapes and her entire team being fired.
This new feature film from screenwriter-turned-director James Valentine is based on a memoir by Mary Mapes so it is fair to assume that as the story is told from her point of view that she rightly comes out of this as the heroine of the piece. What she insists on repeating was the fact that not once during this whole debacle did the debate ever touch on the more important issue and the crux of the whole matter which was the fact that the President shirked his easy and privileged duties, from which he even managed to get released from early to go to Harvard. The opposition was always about the technicality of the evidence thus ensuring that the conversation remained firmly on that and that alone.
This is a powerful piece of partisan shenanigans and the reliving of which no doubt will enrage people from both ends of the political specter but obviously for entirely different reasons. With a central dynamic and electrifying performance by Cate Blanchett as Mapes which is a role that she delivers with such potent force that makes this whole wretched tale so completely compelling for each of the 120 minutes. Her co-star is Robert Redford, who in one of his best performances for years, is pitch perfect as the statesman-like Rather as he plays the wise sage to his passionate and provocative producer.
The 60 Minute team is played by Dennis Quaid, Topher Grace and Elizabeth Moss, and the manipulative CBS President who bails on his News room team to save his own neck and the future of the network is played by Bruce Greenwood.
Reference is made to the fact that Mapes had been in possession of the story about Bush’s so-called military service before the 2000 election but the sudden death of her mother meant she shelved it then. This was the US Election that resulted in Bush being awarded the Presidency by the US Supreme Court after Al Gore had won the popular vote. Maybe that would have turned out differently if it made our screens back then.
Immediately prior to this drama unfolding at 60 Minutes, Mapes had produced the story that announced the US military’s investigation of the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. She won a Peabody Award for this, but the time that was announced in 2004 she has already been fired, never to work in television again.
It’s a deeply sad part of our recent history and this powerful re-telling of exactly what happened should simply not be missed by anyone.