"Rather" Review: Frank Marshall's Dan Rather Doc Is a Solid Primer (But Not Much More)

“Rather” Review: Frank Marshall’s Dan Rather Doc Is a Solid Primer (But Not Much More)

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Running for 96 minutes, Frank Marshall’s Rathera documentary about the life and times of Dan Rather, will premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival alongside Luke Korem of Milli Vanilli, a 106 minute documentary about the life and times of Milli Vanilli. I know both documentaries exist in their own gaps and the comparison is apples to rutabagas, but I’m still confident in saying this: A definitive documentary about Dan Rather will take longer to properly tell his story than a definitive documentary about Milli Vanilli.

In his home stretch, Rather claims that to a young generation weaned on social media, Dan Rather is a funny and cantankerous Twitter truth teller, but those new fans have little awareness of the fact that he was once a revered (and briefly disgraced) journalist and broadcaster of nightly news. Leaving aside those pretty adoring pups alike don’t know what “broadcast” or “nightly news” is, Rather it’s a documentary for them.

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The bottom line

Quite challenging, if somewhat limited.

Place: Tribeca Film Festival (Spotlight+)
Director: Franco Marshall

1 hour and 36 minutes

Rather it is OK. It’s not definitive.

With a somewhat strange and useless turn in time, Rather traces its hero’s journey from Texas radio to early television breaks covering Hurricane Carla and the Kennedy assassination to his time as a dogged Vietnam and White House reporter to his prominence at the CBS anchor desk and beyond 60 minutes to his fall from grace and his improbable resurrection.

Rather himself is a constant presence throughout the documentary, capturing him commuting to and from work during a thunderstorm and playing on his computer. He sat down for what appear to be several interviews. No amount of access changes the fact that while Rather is clearly a surprisingly sharp 91, he’s a somewhat bland interview topic, offering more generic platitudes and canned answers than the kind of popular yarns devotees of him might hope for. That version of Rather may have inspired Marshall to push the documentary towards greater visual flair or take more structural liberties.

You rather want to tell stories that fall through the mud of Vietnam or capture the exhilaration of a grumpy back-and-forth with Richard Nixon, and have Marshall aesthetically follow him there. Instead you get ones that could be pulled from a tape book.

Or sometimes even less. When the documentary invariably covers less flattering chapters in his career—an ill-fated on-air exchange with George HW Bush or the docs scandal that ended his stint at CBS—it’s silent or muddled in his musings.

Marshall’s list of talking heads is passable for the purpose, but people fall back into their assigned roles early and often. Robin Rather, Dan’s daughter, is there for personal details that Dan would rather not share; she seems to start each quote with “The thing people don’t understand about my dad…” or “My dad is everything…” just to provide information only in broad strokes. Dan Rather, we learn from her, is deeply religious, deeply committed to journalism, and deeply committed to her family, though there are seldom any colorful anecdotes to add to these claims.

Longtime CBS News veteran Susan Zirinsky, one of Rather’s many colleagues, is the source Marshall turns to whenever Rather has done something wrong. Zirinsky is candid about the missteps that torpedoed George W. Bush’s infamous National Guard service story, but she’s being candid in the softest way possible, one of several people wanting to point out the irony that the ill-fated story was basically right, even if a key document was fraudulent.

At least Rather is inundated with spectacular archival footage of the kind that never gets old, whether it’s the aforementioned banter with Nixon or dispatches from a burly, spirited young Rather incorporated into the troops in Vietnam. There is enough material on Roger Ailes and the evolution from a neutral concept of “news” to today’s partisan landscape to understand how Rather became a polarizing figure, and the documentary deftly reminds viewers that the best news anchors are those that they did the job of denouncing themselves – and that Dan Rather did the job.

The documentary has people like Rick Perlstein to provide general overviews and Howard Stringer to provide CBS specific overviews, but Rather constantly opens the doors in part and leaves juicier chapters for a future documentary longer and with better sources.

I wish the movie really delved into the Brokaw/Rather/Jennings era of female TV hosts. Marshall is able to provide general points of differentiation between the three – especially that Rather liked to travel to film from the bigger story scene, while the other two were more understated – without elaborating. Then there’s the impact Ailes and Fox News had in ending that era. Marshall definitely isn’t dismissive of these things, but if Ailes is the villain of the piece — no inherent disagreements here — he’s an off-screen, poorly explained villain.

There’s just a lot of things about the media landscape that Rather either can’t or won’t do it justice – which brings me back to my initial point that if you’re coming from a youth perspective this will be enlightening, but if you’ve lived through it you’ll hardly gain anything new.