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Tribeca Review: “Rather” Proves a Great History Lesson

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | June 16th, 2023

Dan Rather in RATHER ©Dan Rather Documentary, LLC

Rather (Frank Marshall, 2023) 3½ out of 4 stars.

The longtime broadcast journalist Dan Rather may have stepped down in 2005 as lead anchor of the CBS Evening News—a position he held for 24 years—but he has hardly gone away. Born in Texas in 1931, the nonagenarian has found a new, and much younger, audience on social media, where his witty barbs attacking right-wing nonsense have earned legions of new fans. There’s much more to him than just the scandal that sent him packing or the more recent fans he has developed, however, and in the new documentary Rather, from veteran producer/director Frank Marshall (The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart), we get the full picture.

Working with a vast archive spanning Rather’s lengthy career, which so often dovetailed with major historical events (JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Watergate, 1980s Afghanistan, the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, the Abu Ghraib torture and prisoner abuse scandal, and so much more), Marshall does his best to reveal the man behind the myth. That doesn’t quite stop him from veering into hagiography, but there are at least some warts on display. Overall, unless one hates Rather for a misplaced belief in his liberal bias, the film feels relatively evenhanded.

There are plenty of talking heads, as well, among them daughter Robin and grandson Martin (wife Jean remains steadfastly off camera, except in older photos). There are also commentators such as politician and activist (and contemporary) Andrew Young, comedian Samantha Bee, and businessman Mark Cuban (who employed Rather at HDNet after his departure from CBS). And then there is just so much amazing footage from the past to supplement Rather’s own in-person narration.

Dan Rather in RATHER ©Dan Rather Documentary, LLC

Beyond the wonder at seeing Rather across eras and at different ages, there’s also the lesson on just how important a robust fourth estate is to a healthy democracy, something we appear to have less and less. When people hate journalists for uncovering uncomfortable truths, that’s on the haters. It’s reporters’ job to keep people on their toes. I am not the only one, I am sure, to miss the days of the primacy of the three main networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—when the nightly news was delivered with minimal, if any, editorial commentary. Politics and journalism make for very unfortunate bedfellows.

Just look at how much Richard Nixon hated Dan Rather—we can all agree that Nixon was corrupt and unsuited to the presidency, I hope—and compare it to the campaign waged by the 45th occupant of the White House against the media (Trump was certainly far worse than Nixon). The difference today is that at least one cable channel—that would be Fox—serves as propaganda, whereas back in Rather’s heyday everyone understood their task. Much has been lost through the ideological degradation of news reporting.

And what about Rather’s firing? It’s in here, though I wish the film probed a little more deeply into how its subject allowed poorly sourced documents about George W. Bush’s military service to end up as his undoing. There are hints that this was payback for the Bush family’s sentiment that Rather had long been out to get them, but that’s all.

Ultimately, Rather is a cinematic tribute to a true American patriot and icon, and should be required viewing for anyone interested in history, journalism, and the history of journalism. Before Rather, there were many others like him (such as his mentor, Walter Cronkite); after him, whoever follows could be just as great, or greater, but they will most certainly be different. The world changes, and that’s not a bad thing, but let the past inform the present for a better future.


Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator, as well as Film Festival Today's Editor. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, Chris is, in addition, lead film critic at Hammer to Nail and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice.

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