“Journalism is the first draft of history,” Phil Graham, newspaper publisher and part owner of the Washington Post, once said. I would add that films about journalism – whether fictional or based on true events – would be the postscript to history, with license. Journalists are those messengers who seek out and bring us stories that range from inane to history changing, and cinema has portrayed the full spectrum. Some of the shine on the occupation has been tarnished recently by insane attacks on its integrity coupled with our appetite for quickie soundbites on social media.
The stable of messengers, field reporters, photojournalists, analysts, and beat reporters are all subject to scrutiny as we tend to look askance at bad or threatening news that challenges our comfortable perceptions, even our current way of life. We blame and often dismiss the messenger when they tell us things we don’t want to hear. One only needs to look back on all the recent sex scandals, political misdeeds, and crowd manipulation we’ve all faced in the past couple of years to understand how burdening this can be on a newly informed public. For everything gained by being informed there is someone or some group that has something to lose as a result. And who gets the blowback, deserved or not – the journalist, of course.
To me, there is no nobler professional than one who risks life, limb and reputation to root out the facts in the first person to major events and movements around the globe. These are the reporters who dare take on the bastions of church and government, the reporters who doggedly expose the scumbags exploiting the innocent or fraudulently filling their pockets at the public expense, and, most of all, the James Foley’s who bear witness only pay for their determination with their lives.
Unfortunately, there is another side to this golden coin that cinema also illustrates without blinking. Competition and greed can inspire shortcuts and misrepresentation such as the ambulance chasers of yellow journalism, the ever-popular paparazzi who invade the privacy of the famous to sate our fascination with the unattainable, and, rarely, the reporter who simply makes the whole thing up just to get the headline, be it all too briefly and for all the wrong reasons.
I’ve tried to include a sample of each this time because the representations are of equal value in a genre this all-encompassing. Great films like Good Night & Good Luck, The China Syndrome, Zodiac and Spotlight, among many others, do not appear here, but they are no less important as both a historical record and as cinema. Here are my five:
All the President’s Men Alan J Pakula (1977)
The mothership of all films about investigative journalism, based on the Woodward-Bernstein book, began taking shape in 1974, the same year that Richard Nixon was driven from office over wiretapping, electoral manipulation, slush funds and various charges of perjury originating from his own Oval Office. Pakula’s film portrays the dogged courage required to survive all the risks and pitfalls encountered in a confrontation with the most powerful machine in the world. Watergate was the biggest American political scandal in modern times – thus far, anyway – and dominated the media for over two years, but public fatigue with the matter didn’t impede the filmmakers in their quest to get the story committed to film while it was still as fresh as a newly laid dog turd on the lawn. One can only hope we see the same gumption in the next couple of years.
Ace in the Hole Billy Wilder (1951)
Wilder’s most overlooked film had an alternative title – The Big Carnival – because he examined, unforgivingly, an unscrupulous reporter who tries to manipulate rescue efforts of a man trapped in a cave by playing on public gullibility to inflate his story and career. Wilder’s fictional expose reaches beyond the questionable motives of the reporter, Tatum (Kirk Douglas) and implicates the exploitation of the tragic carnival by most of the powers that be. When things head toward the tragic and the proverbial shit hits the fan, Tatum’s last grasp for redemption is ultimately rejected. Wilder’s film was initially, for the most past, critically and financially rejected, as well, only recovering its importance and overall legacy some 50 years after its release.
La Dolce Vita Frederico Fellini (1961)
We are all to familiar with the term “paparazzi” – that flock of freelancers who track and swarm the rich and famous in return for a paycheck from tabloid media outlets – but did you know that it was Fellini that provided us with the term? Paparazzo an Italian dialect term for the noise insects make as they invade, hover and sting their prey, and Fellini gave the name to a photojournalist character in the film. It not only stuck, it became an entity, one that we deal with on an ever-increasing basis today in all media. Fellini’s masterwork (one of them) gives us Marcello, a reporter who specializes in tabloid style news of the rich and famous while, at the same time, fighting the old existential battle between meaningfulness and self-indulgence. Fellini’s film structure here is inspired and his tone bravely illuminating – he acknowledges without outright condemning, allowing even that most human trait of yielding to overwhelming temptation despite the knowledge that this is not as it should be. Like most Fellini films, this one has an iconic opening sequence of a Christ the Redeemer statue, arms outstretched, being airlifted like some kind of commodity over a city in physical – and moral – ruin.
Shattered Glass Billy Ray (2003)
The story of Stephen Glass is one that gives journalists the vapors. The arc of Glass’s career at the reputable New Republic was meteoric. He was a helluva writer, churning out 41 entertaining articles for the magazine; unfortunately, 27 of them contained fabricated material, quotes and, in some cases, were completely untrue. Director Ray is better known as a screenwriter (Captain Phillips, The Hunger Games and the upcoming The Devil in the White City), and this was his first and most successful directorial effort. Despite positive reviews, a healthy festival circuit run, and several year-end critics’ awards (especially actors Peter Sarsgaard and Hayden Christensen), the audience pretty much stayed away, which is a shame because there are few films that examine the very heart of journalism and its vulnerability to the ebb and flow of societal moods. If you haven’t seen it, search it out – I guarantee you will be riveted start to finish.
The Year of Living Dangerously Peter Weir (1982)
In my next lifetime, this is the occupation for me, that of the roving reporter who heads straight for the danger zone. Weir’s lush and thrilling film, one of the first Australian/US coproductions, is based on C. J. Koch’s novel about said roving Aussie journalist, Guy (a young and stunning Mel Gibson) stationed in mid-60s Jakarta to cover political unrest in Indonesia that resulted in the overthrow of the dictator Sukarno. The film concentrates on the characters integration into very mobile community of international reporters who move from hell-hole to hot-spot as well as a tropical love affair with a British Embassy employee (an equally young and stunning Sigourney Weaver), but our attention is stolen by the superlative performance of Linda Hunt as the male dwarf who is serving as Guy’s photographer, Billy Kwan. He is Guy’s main source and, more importantly, acts as his eyes directly the substrata of reality that’s happening beneath the political struggle being reported. Hunt stole most of the thunder for the film, winning an Oscar after she cleaned up at nearly all the critics awards, but the rest of the film deserves just as much attention. Great storytelling can take a historical event in which we already know the overall outcome and make it suspenseful, moving and totally unpredictable.
So there is my take on journalism – both the good and the bad – on film. In these times when we’re not certain if what’s being reported is true or not, it’s refreshing to go back and be reminded how necessary good, solid journalism is to the preservation of society. Perhaps eventually we can pull our cynical heads from our fearfully lazy arses and get back there someday. In the meantime – we still have the movies.