As a Communications Major at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (Go Bulldogs!), there were two specific newscasters that came up in conversation: Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. Coincidentally, both were born roughly a decade apart, worked for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), and were considered the two most trusted voices in news. There is another, however, whom I was more familiar then, a face and voice that was synonymous with news-related authority: Dan Rather. Born and raised in Texas, Rather found his big break while covering Hurricane Carla in September 1961, the coverage of which saved countless lives through a never-before-used overlay technique to bring the perspective of the danger to the people. Since then, he’d been involved in almost every major event from the Civil Rights Movement, on-location in Dallas November 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, at the tumultuous 1968 Democratic National Convention, in the Vietnam War, as well as with many American Presidents and foreign leaders. His career includes many events from which his perspective was considered the most valuable, making him a target for those who sought to reduce the Fourth Estate (the nickname for the press) by any means necessary. Using a variety of talking head interviews and archival footage, director Frank Marshall (Jazz Fest: A New Orleans Story) offers an inside look into the career of Dan Rather via the documentary Rather, providing a bit of a warning regarding the propaganda proclamation of “fake news” that’s become the clarion call for anyone who disagrees with the facts.
From the outset, Marshall positions Rather the man as a rebel, the music playing over a montage of significant moments in the reporter’s career (good and controversial) being Billie Joe Armstrong’s Gimmie Some Truth, conveying the sense that Rather’s unconventional or outside the norm. I doubt few would pair the rather square-looking newsman with anything rebel, but the archival footage declares differently. Throughout the years, Rather has been luckily positioned to offer visual evidence and commentary on significant moments in global history, his interest being in sharing information that might otherwise be kept hidden. For instance, the documentary outright declares that the use of news reporting in Vietnam (which includes Rather embedded with soldiers) was the reason that the Vietnam War was far less popular than World War II, which saw the American people come together to rally behind the war effort. The doc presents the notion that, by seeing what was happening for themselves, it was harder for the populace to line up with the American Government’s perspective on the war. This is merely one example in a long line of moments wherein Rather was present and able to offer the facts, as he saw them.
This view, according to Rather, made the anchor a target to those who worried about having their actions looked into. Using the archival footage of Rather having several combative interactions with the Nixon and George H.W. Bush White House (the men individually, as well as larger polices), Marshall appears to set the stage for a bit of doubt regarding a 2005 scandal in which Rather reported on George W. Bush’s military record using information that had not been fully vetted. Then as now, Rather takes responsibility, but there comes a point in the doc in which, especially as Roger Ailes and Fox News enter the picture, a suggestion is made that the information Rather used was a trap set to address old grudges and/or to remove a prominent and trusted voice from the global stage.
Oddly, if the doc were about this specific moment in time, then it would be far more engaging than it is. Not because exploring a difficult period in Rather’s life makes for a salacious story, but it’s here that who Rather is as a person really comes to light. Through the various interview portions from family members, colleagues, peers, and himself, Rather is as much a story of American history as it is the significance of the news as a protector of a country’s people. We learn about Rather through the way he responds to or treats each instance, each engagement, thereby creating an outline of him through the space he takes up. But it’s not until the scandal that we, as the audience, get a sense of who he really is. Up to this point, Rather’s focus is on the way in which Rather covers the story through the lens of the significance of the moment in time versus the significance to the man himself. Once the scandal hits and Rather must shift his approach, more of who he is comes forth, making for a far more engaging and exciting story that someone leans in for.
Documentaries are, at their core, just another story. Yes, it’s nonfiction, but that doesn’t restrict or remove any sense of drama, excitement, comedy, action, or any other aspects one attributes to fiction. In this way, Rather is a biography piece, informing the audience of who Dan Rather is through his work. All we really know is the man-as-reporter, until the formal desk is removed from him, and then we get a greater sense of the man-as-human. It’s the gumption and drive which helped Rather get to the pinnacle of respect in news, but it’s his humanity which makes him someone who the next generation (and perhaps the one after that) is aware of thanks to his online personality and removal of pretense. Who he is now is worthy of the punk tune that accompanies the doc’s introduction, but there’s little sense in the story provided if that’s who he was before. There is no denying, however, that Rather remains one of the most respected voices in news and his story is worth the watch.
Screened during Tribeca Film Festival 2023.
For more information, head to the official Tribeca Film Festival 2023 Rather webpage.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.