Journalists have taken a bit of kicking over the last few years. After all, if they’re not lying pissed in a gutter then they’re lying about hacking into people’s phones, right? Well, not quite. Let’s not forget that it was the dogged work of a journalist (Nick Davies) which broke the phone hacking story while the police and politicians of all hues turned a blind eye.
A by-product of all this is an extremely high-quality cinema sub-genre focused on the profession. It has a broad range: some based in newspapers, some in TV stations; some based on fact, some pure fiction and some serious while others less-so (let’s not forget Clark Kent and Peter Parker are reporters, as is Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day). So, for what it’s worth here, in reverse order, are five journalism films you simply have to watch.
The Paper (1994)
This film shows a day in the life of Harry Hacket (played by Michael Keaton) the news editor of a New York tabloid racing to unearth the truth behind the killing of two white businessmen before his editor prints a story wrongly pinning the blame on two black youths. Some critics slam it for being too light - comparing it to the screwball comedies of the Fifties like His Girl Friday - but this belies the fact it is co-written by a former editor of Time magazine and is a keenly observed portrayal of what life in a newsroom is like (or at least used to be like before everyone got made redundant). There are workaholics as well as abundant sarcasm and a general air of organised chaos. There’s talk of web breaks and arguments over headlines and page designs and not a blogger or internet department in site and the truth is knowingly disregarded due to the restriction of deadlines and the potential cost of missing them. It does descend into slightly odd farce towards the end with a fight between Keaton and his boss Glenn Close as he tries to get the presses stopped but the printers’ reluctance to follow his instructions is all to real. Oh, and it’s got Marisa Tomei in it.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas star in this rare beast - a taught message movie - about a local TV reporter Kimberley Wells (the Oscar-nominated Fonda) frustrated by the professional restrictions she faces as a woman (nothing like that would happen these days). Despite these Wells unearths a huge story about a cover up at her local nuclear plant or, to put it another way, the conflict of interest between profit-making firms also being responsible for safety (nothing like that would happen these days). Lemmon, in another Oscar-nominated role, is at his best as Jack Godell, the company man whose conscience gets the better of him prompting him to leak the truth to Wells and who is consequently smeared to the point of madness by his employers. The film has no music at all (apart from over the opening credits) which adds to the atmosphere and documentary feel and there’s a nod to the mysterious death of real-life nuclear safety whistleblower Karen Silkwood five years earlier. The China Syndrome could not have been timelier, just 12 days after its release America was rocked by the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown in Pennsylvania. This led to the film being pulled at some cinemas and also prompted Fonda to start campaigning against nuclear power. (Incidentally, following the disaster no authorisation would be given to allow the building of a new nuclear plant in the US until this year).
Welcome To Sarajevo (1997)
Michael Winterbottom’s portrayal of reporters covering the Bosnian war steers well clear of Hollywood sentimentality and mixes film with real-life footage to deliver an unflinching adaptation of British journalist Michael Nicholson’s book Natasha’s Story.
Stephen Dillane plays Michael Henderson, just one of the media pack drinking his way through the chaos and getting frustrated that the daily tragedy he reports is getting bumped from news lists by celebrity stories. “We’re here to report, not get involved,” he says but finds it increasingly difficult to stay detached as he becomes involved with aid workers (including Marisa Tomei) trying to help several hundred children living in squalor on the front line at the Ljubica Ivezic Orphanage where they seem to have been abandoned by the world’s politicians. Ultimately Henderson helps get some of the children out, illegally adopting a little girl Emira in the process.
The film offers an uncompromising view of life for war correspondents and civilians alike while implicitly criticising the reaction of the international community. It also pulls no punches, not least when the UN convoy escorting the children to safety is forced to stand by powerlessly, as Serbian militia frogmarch the Serbian-born orphans off the bus before taking them away to who-knows-where.
In reality Nicholson received huge amounts of criticism from within the journalism community for adopting Natasha (the real-life Emira), but I’m sure having seen her grow up happily alongside his own children he won’t care too much about that.
All the President’s Men (1976)
All the President’s Men is a genuine modern classic, but it’s also a highly technical film eschewing the bigger story in favour of giving an intimate portrayal of the craft of journalism done well, for the right reasons. There’s no violence or cheap frills, no back stories or relationships for the central characters in this intelligent detective story. Relying on the viewer’s prior knowledge as a foundation to build on, All the President’s Men is so complex and intricate it gets better with (and indeed requires) repeat viewings.
It’s detailed, word-heavy and is essentially a stage play on celluloid which shows that no matter how big the story, real journalism (not the celebrity PR-driven shite that passes for it these days) can involve quite mundane, dare I say boring, work (it should be required viewing for all budding hacks). Yet, despite this and even though you know the ending (at least you should) the tension is palpable throughout.
It charts the true-life efforts of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (played by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) as they uncover the mother of all ‘gates’ from the initial break in at the Democrat National Committee headquarters to news of Richard Nixon’s resignation as president (no, that is NOT a plot spoiler) yet Nixon, on the few occasions he does appear, is merely part of the background scenery – this is about journalists.
The final instalment of Alan J Pakula’s so-called Paranoia Trilogy, it’s almost as if the first two (Klute and The Parallax View, which also both focused on journalists) were just preparing him for this job. It’s a shame but the director, who died in 1998, doesn’t get the kind of plaudits afforded his Seventies peers such as Francis Ford Coppola or Martin Scorsese. Yet, while this film doesn’t have Don Corleone making an offer you can’t refuse, nor Travis Bickle asking if you’re talking to him it has stood the test of time just as well and is arguably far more significant.
Ace in the Hole (1951)
While All the President’s Men is deservedly highly acclaimed, it’s also the lazy, default choice for the best ever journalism film. Ace in the Hole, its less well-known, cynical, brooding cousin, is the real daddy. Also known as The Big Carnival, Billy Wilder’s film was the first major Hollywood movie to portray journalists as manipulative and deceitful – creating stories, not just reporting them.
It centres on Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) a stereotypical hack who has worked his way down via a series of big-city newspaper jobs to a small-town publication. After a year of toiling in the sticks, he stumbles upon a man trapped in a mine and milks the human interest story for all it’s worth, engineering far bigger headlines than the drama actually merits. “Bad news sells best,” he says “because good news is no news.”
He bribes the town’s sheriff to slow down the rescue effort thus buying himself time to write more stories which he sells to major newspapers becoming a celebrity in his own right. Within a few days the whole town’s cashing in as thousands of onlookers gather for the latest news (some themselves interviewed for no other reason than that they are there). A literal media circus develops around the mine, complete with funfair and big top.
Released a year after Wilder’s hugely successful Sunset Boulevard which looked at the seedy side of Hollywood, this scathing critique of the media was slammed by the critics and was also the director’s biggest commercial flop, but it’s the film he regarded as his best. Perhaps it’s no surprise that Middle America rejected Ace in the Hole at the time, after all no one is spared blame; neither those who tell the lies nor those who uncritically consume them. This probably explains why, despite it being nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar, so few have seen it. However, it’s since been re-assessed and is now rightly regarded as a classic.
I’d like to say the film’s focus on the deceitful manipulation of public officials by a journalist trying to cash in on the public’s appetite for tragedy is as relevant now as it was 61 years ago but, of course, nothing like that would happen these days…