« Blind Faith | Main | Spirited Astray »


Tribeca Festival

Rather (2023)

It must be nice to be able to participate in your eulogy, even if not every aspect of your life is one you care to remember. Dan Rather got his start on local news in Texas, meaning he was the man on the spot when John F. Kennedy was shot in 1963; and 60 years later here we are watching a documentary about his journalism career at the Tribeca Festival. Mr. Rather is in his 90s, still participating in the news cycle through his Substack and a sassy Twitter feed, and witnessing a world of news and journalism which he directly shaped through his choices and his mistakes. The movie is more of a primer for those too young to remember journalism before the 24-hour news cycle, but its examination of Mr. Rather’s legacy pulls no punches.

It's really quite a legacy, going back to when he overlaid a radar image of a storm onto a map, during reporting on a hurricane in 1961, permanently changing how weather is reported. He spent over a year on the ground in Vietnam, sending back stories about the war which matched people’s experiences instead of what military leadership was saying, and was held personally responsible for some of the huge protests that led to American withdrawal. Later he was the host of the nightly news program for CBS, at a time when there were only three television channels and the national news ran for half an hour a night. He remained in this role for over 20 years, acting as a voice of trust and reason. And later still he was the reporter who used unauthenticated documents in a report about the shady wartime service of a sitting president. The furor lead to his nonamicable departure from CBS, permanently stained his legacy and directly led to the explosion of right-wing news content in America, which cares little for facts. Dozens of talking heads – former colleagues, current investigative journalists and people who’ve worked behind the scenes in television news for decades, including Samantha Bee, Soledad O’Brien and Ronan Farrow – explain the import of Mr. Rather’s integrity, journalistic commitment and nose for a story. He was the only major American television reporter in Tianamen Square, for example. But they also discuss his mistakes, which include public wrangling with Richard Nixon, a disastrous live interview with George H. W. Bush, and of course the reporting on George W. Bush’s National Guard service (a story which, the film takes pains to remind us, remains true, even if the documents were not). His reach and access was extraordinary, and therefore so were the impact of those mistakes.

And when those mistakes do come up, the documentary cuts to his daughter, Robin, and grandson, Martin, who are there to explain Mr. Rather’s feelings and what he is like as a person, not just a journalist. This is done with the lightest of touches, and gives away almost nothing of Mr. Rather’s private self. For example, his wife, Jean, is mentioned only in passing and in a very few photos, despite their marriage persisting since 1957. It’s not a surprise that someone who has been in the public eye for so long about their work will be so guarded about their personal life, but it’s a major contrast to other eulogy-style documentaries which are usually fairly happy to allow glimpses of the person behind the persona. Not here.

Instead the later focus shifts from Mr. Rather’s work on smaller online networks to commentary on the current state of American journalism and its distance from Mr. Rather’s heyday and Mr. Rather’s current position as a critic of the American news cycle, though his newsletter and pithy comments on Twitter. It’s not what his career used to be, though it’s an awful lot more than most people in their 90s are capable of, as director Frank Marshall takes pains to remind us of. No new documentary ground is broken here, but none is needed when you have over 60 years of sometimes daily footage to use in your 95-minute movie. Mr. Rather’s influence on how Americans thought about the news was in everybody’s homes every night; and it was taken for granted in ways which are completely unimaginable now. This movie is a really interesting, clear-eyed reckoning of one man’s influence; and we should all be so lucky to leave a legacy this large.


Post a comment

This weblog only allows comments from registered users. To comment, please Sign In.

© 2008-2023 Critic's Notebook and its respective authors. All rights reserved. | Privacy Policy | Terms of Use
Subscribe to Critic's Notebook | Follow Us on Twitter | Contact Us | Write for Us | Reprints and Permissions