Tribeca Film Review: Rather
A clear-eyed history of the greatest living journalist from Texas
By Richard Whittaker,
2:01PM, Tue. Jun. 13, 2023
What defines a great journalist? Is it simply skill and ability? There are plenty of talented journalists who are never called great. Is it being in the right place at the right time? No, because many mediocrities have been in the room for pivotal events. So maybe it's the willingness to be dedicated to truth in those era-defining moments.
That's arguably the thesis of Rather, Frank Marshall's documentary about the career of Dan Rather, the softly-spoken but determined Texas reporter who has helped turn the spotlight on those pivotal moments that defined late-20th-century America (Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement, Watergate), and go toe-to-toe with not one but multiple Presidents of the United States.
In exploring his 70-plus year career, starting as an AP stringer in Huntsville, Texas, and leading to decades as one of the most recognizable TV news anchors, Rather almost buries the lede: That Dan Rather has been around forever, and not only retained his journalistic credibility but enhanced it. The reporter who got gut punched on the floor of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago is the same reporter who, half a century later, is praised by Gen-Z as a master of social media shade. In finding a through line between all these memorable events and life turns, Rather is inevitably slightly hagiographic, even as it builds to the inevitable fall from grace during the infamous Memogate and his return as an elder statesman of quality journalism.
Implicit in the narrative is that, even when he became a household name, he was still a shoe leather reporter, whether it be softball stories for 60 Minutes or heading into Afghanistan to interview the Taliban: And that's what he remains, as his post Memogate career on the ground for HDnet proves. However, it meant he never felt quite satisfied with the idea of being a deskbound anchor like his peers, Tom Brokaw at NBC News and Peter Jennings on ABC. That's where Rather falls in love with the idea of Rather as part of history, rather than a witness to it. There's a generation for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall will be defined by the image of Rather, in the midst of a grinning throng, climbs a rickety wooden ladder up to vantage point that, only days earlier, was the most fiercely-guarded barrier between nations in the world. Should Rather have been there? Should it have been one of the local journalists, one of CBS' cadre of experienced reporters who knew the ground? Should the image instead have been a resident of Berlin?
Or should there be more discussion about how important TV news became under his watchful eye? Rather presents 60 Minutes II as having broken the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse scandal in 2004, when it was really the Associated Press six months earlier: But it was Rather highlighting the story on the small screen that made the difference – an undoubted statement on both the man and the medium.
But those discussions would arguably complicate the real thrust of the film, which is a tick tock of Rather's career, as explained through archive footage, and interviews with his peers, fellow reporters, and with Rather himself. It's also inevitably a portrait of how the right has targeted the media as the enemy of America, and how – as one of the faces of American journalism – they were inevitably going to target the baritone-voiced reporter.
Rather rarely shows much beyond his life on screen, so anyone hoping for a revelatory examination of technique, like Lizzie Gottlieb's biography of Robert Caro and Robert Gottlieb, Turn Every Page, or an examination of his oft-cited but little-explored religiosity and faith in democracy, might be a little disappointed. Indeed, it's hard to say you'll know more about Rather the man by the end of the story. One can't help the feeling that the tough-but-fair Rather might have stuck a few tougher questions to his subject, to at least crack open that seemingly unflappable exterior.
However, if you're looking for a reminder of a hugely impactful career in newsgathering, then Rather is rather perfect.
Sun., June 18, 2:15pm. Village East by Angelika