Guides | September 2, 2008 | Comments ()
Newsrooms are endangered and beautiful things. This is a tough time for the newspaper business, with risky management and layoffs and online worries and a general feeling that everything is sliding toward an unpredictable future, and a side effect of all these drastic changes being compressed into such a narrow time frame is that movies and TV about journalism can now feel not just dated but downright otherworldly. The fundamentals of courtroom dramas or cop thrillers are going to stay basically the same over time, but the leaps and bounds journalism is taking necessarily mean that every decade’s cinematic representations of the field are going to be odes to and snapshots of their own specific era. It’s in that spirit of honoring the past and looking back at classic reporter movies that this entry in Pajiba’s Guide to What’s Good for You was born. We both work at newspapers, and though our hearts are first and foremost with the men and women who use words like “dek” and “lede,” we expanded the list to include a few examples of broadcast journalism because we wanted to capture movies where the newsroom itself played a silent but vital role in the storytelling. These are good movies — and one phenomenal TV show — but more than that, they’re great journalism stories, tales of the struggle to get to the truth and do it the right way. The list is by no means complete, but these nine entries are among the best. Run it:
Ace in the Hole (1951): Billy Wilder’s harrowing indictment of media manipulation is about as dark as they come, but it’s also a story that could only be told through the lens of mid-century newspapers. Wilder was on a phenomenal run in the 1940s-50s, meaning that Ace in the Hole, despite its intelligence and prescience, got lost in the shuffle somewhere between Sunset Blvd. and The Seven-Year Itch. Chalk it up to the film’s all-encompassing story or the way Wilder seemed to go to extra trouble to throw in every seedy character twist he could think of: IMDb’s random selection of keywords reads “last rites,” “corrupt sheriff,” “choking,” “scissors,” and “cave in,” which ought to give you of the scattershot nature of the story. But at its heart, the film is a critical examination of American newspapers and the power they can hold over the opinions of the citizenry. Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) is a conniving but lazy reporter who’s grinding out a job at an Albuquerque rag because he’s been fired from a dozen others, including the New York Times. On his way to an assignment, he happens upon a roadside diner abutting an old Indian cave that’s partly collapsed around the store’s proprietor. He takes control of the rescue operation, forcing miners to take a longer route to the trapped man so that the story can drag out and the inherent drama can escalate. Chuck muscles the other media — a few other reporters and a radio man — off the story by bribing the sheriff with good coverage, and he alternately makes out with and abuses the victim’s cold-hearted wife. It’s anything but a cheery film, but Wilder’s examination of Chuck is bracing in its honesty, and his warning to not believe everything you read hasn’t gone out of style. — Daniel Carlson
All the President’s Men (1976): It’s impossible to understate the importance of All the President’s Men in the pantheon of journalism movies. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View) and written by William Goldman from the book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the film is at once a superlative detective story, a riveting political drama, and a tribute to shoe leather reporting. When Washington Post reporters Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) begin to separately piece together the disparate facts that will come to be filed by history under the label of Watergate, Pakula wisely chooses not to overplay the authentic drama of the story. Rather, he lets it unfold in a series of increasingly convoluted conversations between the two men, as well as their own attempts to get someone to go on the record to talk about Richard Nixon’s administration and the dirty deeds behind the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Yes, the film takes certain dramatic liberties with certain events, turning Woodward’s meetings with his confidential source, Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), into clandestine meetings in parking garages with a twitchy spook. But the film’s unwavering commitment to the integrity of the life of the reporters is magnificent, as in the brilliant long take in which Woodward calls a source and catches him by surprise, Pakula’s camera moving slowly in the whole time, or the clipped way in which Woodward first bucks at Bernstein’s clumsy attempts to rewrite his work. Woodward and Bernstein want to get the bad guys, but more than that, they want to get the story; that paper owns them, and they love every crushing minute. As Woodward says, “This is terrific work, if you like rejection.” Both are true. — DC
Broadcast News (1987): James L. Brooks is wonderful at using specific and realistic backdrops for his human dramas, and that sense of realism is what makes Broadcast News so believable. The film was only Brooks’ second time behind the camera on a feature, but the writer-director brought his penetrating brand of comedy to bear on the plotlines that always seems to crop up in one way or another in journalism movies: namely, falsifying stories and corporate buyouts. Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a bland reporter gunning for more camera time, and his brand of bitterness and commitment will be familiar to anyone who’s ever walked through a newsroom. He’s in love with his producer, Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), but things get tough with the arrival of new anchor Tom Grunick (William Hurt), who was hired for his face but finds himself willing to learn and better himself to impress Jane. It’s a serviceable romantic triangle that would work in just about any setting, but Brooks’ story elevates the tension by placing the characters in the world of network news. The film draws part of its story from the 1984 layoffs at CBS News; Susan Zirinsky, a producer there, served as an associate producer and technical adviser on the film, and the story benefits from a helping hand from someone who actually served in the trenches. The characters’ morale swings and job frustration with their contentious industry weren’t just a reflection of the time, but a sad preview of the problems that would come to wrack print journalism in 20 years. — DC
The Paper (1994): The quintessential battle of the newsroom is between reporter and editor — creative versus corporate, artist versus manager. You can’t help but question a person’s judgment and sanity for choosing to crunch numbers and glad-hand mayors instead being a reporter or a copy/design desker, and the late reporter Greg Lopez summed it up best in his cover letter to the Detroit News on why he didn’t want to be an editor: “To me, that is like a young girl who wants to grow up to be Angela Lansbury.” With a title comes complacency, and the question “What sells?” can replace “What’s true?” That’s the ultimate drama of The Paper, Ron Howard’s 1994 nod to a New York daily: whether the truth can win out in the face of sensationalism. Made when Michael Keaton was still popular and Glenn Close was still a leading lady, and written by David Koepp and Simon Koepp, The Paper has serious subject matter, but isn’t serious. City editor Henry Hackett (Keaton) is out to prove that two black teens accused of being involved in the deaths of white businessmen were really just in the wrong place at the wrong time, and he only has a few hours to do it. Managing Editor Alicia Clark (Close) wants the story for the cover, no matter what, but Hackett knows that’s not good enough; he has to get the story right. He’s the scrappy underdog: You have to cheer for him as he chases the story and gets his own “stop the presses” moment. You have to cheer when he stands up to the establishment and asks Clark when it was she lost her way. You have to cheer when they get into a fistfight. Likely the cheesiest film on this list, it’s also likely the most fun. — Sarah Carlson
Almost Famous (2000): It’s no stretch to include Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 coming-of-age tale, with great journalism films; the combination of his love of both music and writing represent journalism in its purest state: the love of the story. An avid music fan, William Miller (Patrick Fugit) lucks into a writing gig with Rolling Stone by just not mentioning his actual age of 15, and soon he’s on the tour bus of his favorite band, Stillwater, making friends with its members and its band-aids (Kate Hudson at her best) while scribbling on scraps of paper and trying to snag a one-on-one interview with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup). He goes into the drug-addled trenches and, with the help of his writing mentor, Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), comes out with a first-person account of the lives of rock stars he can’t help but make friends with, no matter how many times they call him the enemy. Almost Famous is Crowe at his best, both in writing and directing, in his semi-autobiographical ode to his first profession and constant love of music reporting. William has to learn the hard way about objectivity, but not too much; the best way to tell a story is to live it first. But there’s the rub for a journalist: We aren’t part of the story, we’re just telling it. We’re too uncool to be the stars, but at least we know how to tell the star’s tales. Bangs was right: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.” We get over it, and we keep writing, and we keep being fans. You can’t beat it. — SC
Shattered Glass (2003): Writer-director Billy Ray’s first turn behind the camera is easily Hayden Christensen’s best work, and it’s worth saluting the film just for Ray’s ability to capture Christensen’s mealy-mouthed insecurity and perfectly channeling it into a genuine character. But Shattered Glass is also a sharply observed, intelligent, small-scale film about journalistic ethics in a new-media age. Based on a true story, the film follows Stephen Glass (Christensen), a reporter for New Republic magazine who charms his coworkers but also finds time to manufacture whole stories complete with faked interview notes. What makes the film so good is Ray’s attention to the nuts and bolts of Glass’ shady reporting and the way he was able to find loopholes in the Republic’s face-checking system, and how all his hard work at mythmaking began to unravel when a pair of reporters from Forbes magazine, Adam Penenberg (Steve Zahn) and Andy Fox (Rosario Dawson), start chasing the loose threads in a tech story Glass publishes. Christensen plays Glass with a perfect mix of ingratiation and a growing sense of panic as he realizes he’s painted himself into a corner, and as he butts heads with his editor, Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard). Ray’s film is a great journalism story because it recognizes the inherent drama in the pressure of working at a high-profile magazine and the temptation a young man faced in his efforts to get ahead. From the budget meetings to the editorial shake-ups, nothing is overheated, and that makes for a more intimate look at the life of one screwed-up writer. — DC
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005): Keith Olbermann’s use of Edward R. Murrow’s classic sign-off, “Good night, and good luck,” is perfect. It’s fitting that the MSNBC pundit borrows from Murrow nightly after he’s spent an hour tearing new holes in the asses of our nation’s supposed leaders. Murrow was more subtle, but his role in radio and TV journalism changed the nature of the industry and paved the way for the Olbermanns and Jon Stewarts of today. He was a pundit in the best sense of the word, at a time when the United States needed someone to stand up against the extremist minority posing as a virtuous majority. History repeats itself, and George Clooney saw the opportunity to cleverly and beautifully remind the public of the need for responsible journalism in an age of sensationalism with Good Night, and Good Luck, his 2005 film that weaves an all-star cast through a simple, stylish and classic story. With Joe McCarthy’s fanaticism on the rise and the Red Scare infiltrating everywhere from Hollywood back lots to New York newsrooms in 1953-54, Murrow (David Strathairn) and producer Fred Friendly (Clooney) explored the senator’s dealings as well as the questionable firing of an Air Force reserve lieutenant on their CBS documentary-style show “See It Now.” Shot in black and white and written by Clooney and Grant Heslov, the suspense of the news team researching the story, airing it live and waiting for the inevitable backlash from executives is paced with ease, with Clooney taking a back seat to Strathairn’s brilliant portrayal of the famed newsman. Murrow stood up to the abuse of power and is largely credited with changing the public’s views of McCarthy and helping lead to the senator’s censure. He was one of the greats, and so is his film tribute. — SC
Zodiac (2007): David Fincher’s Zodiac was horribly overlooked upon its release in 2007, or anyway, it felt like it was. By the time awards season came around, There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men had overshadowed Fincher’s gorgeous thriller in the minds of the public, and what’s more, this was more than a year ahead of Robert Downey Jr.’s “return” to stardom with Iron Man. Basically, Fincher’s engrossing re-creation of the Zodiac killings in 1960s San Francisco seemed to fly under everyone’s radar, and that’s a shame, because it’s also a fantastic newspaper story. Fincher’s film chases down the Zodiac investigation from multiple angles, but the most surprising and touching one comes from the work done by Chronicle crime reporter Paul Avery (Downey) and political cartoonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal). Graysmith’s head for codes helps him crack one of the letters the Zodiac sent to the paper, and he and Avery begin pooling information on the serial killer. Fincher’s story deftly explores the journalistic rites of the era — the slowness of postal mail, doing research on microfilm, etc. — but he’s not just riffing on the technological differences of the era; he’s honoring the investigative methods that these men used to try and piece together the identity of the killer terrorizing the Bay Area. A great movie with great reporting. — DC
“The Wire,” Season Five (2008): The HBO TV series “The Wire” is one epic look at the fall of the American Empire, each season focusing on a specific area of the country’s puzzle, from the police chiefs to the drug kingpins, from schools to the city government to the working-class stevedores. Each season builds upon its predecessor, culminating in the final season five with creator David Simon’s bitter ode to his ultimate passion: journalism. Anger and disillusionment is spread throughout the series through plots often described as Dickensian and Shakespearian, but Simon’s utmost rage is fully unleashed in the final season as he recreates the Baltimore Sun newsroom, his former workplace, to bring home his point that the establishment is clueless when it comes to the people it is supposed to be standing up for. Cutbacks, buyouts, fake quotes, lying, cheating, backstabbing, the blatant desire to win awards — if it’s happening in a newsroom, it’s happening in Simon’s personal cubicle playground. The viewer knows the ins and outs of Baltimore corruption and crime by now, but the newspaper, a place that should be in tune with its city, is missing key stories. The saintly copy desk chief, Gus Haynes (Clark Johnson), sticks up for his reporters to the requisite asshole editors but doesn’t quite trust the overeager Scott Templeton (Thomas McCarthy), especially after he comes up with too-perfect quotes and breaks a sensational story of a serial killer of the homeless — a story with ties to fan favorite Det. Jimmy McNulty (Dominic West). The cops are facing cutbacks just as the reporters are, but big stories and big cases are both noticed by management. The opportunism of the desperate reporter and detective fits into Simon’s world all too well, and in some ways, Simon almost isn’t blaming Templeton or McNulty for whatever corners they cut to get attention. In a world where you’re told to do more with less, and where managers just want crime numbers to go down or paper sales to go up, what or who is to stop you from becoming reckless, and why? Everyone is so busy trying to prevent crime or report the news, they forget to actually prevent crime or report the news. Simon’s epic is a tragic one, and he’s not content to end the best series in the history of television on a light note. He’s too let down by everything, especially the newspaper industry. But it’s real, and unflinching, and it tells the story of what really is going on in America’s cities. That’s journalism. — SC
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Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a low-level employee at a Hollywood industry magazine. You can visit his blog, Slowly Going Bald.
Sarah Carlson is Daniel’s sister and has all manner of embarrassing stories about their childhood. She lives in Florence, AL, with her overly excitable Welsh Corgi.
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