The Press on Film

Ian Stansel

May 06, 2011

Some writers work on film and some do not. Sure, there have been a few good movies about novelists and poets--Curtis Hanson's adaptation of Michael Chabon's Wonder Boys is charming and funny; Jane Campion's Keats-Brawne romance Bright Star is gorgeous; Capote is admirably stark and quietly horrifying--but generally I find myself irritated at the lengths filmmakers must go to in order to make the solitary lives of literary writers interesting in a cinematic way. On the other hand, I am a full-fledged sucker for any film dealing with journalism. Why? The external stakes are higher. Just look at these reporters! They're contacting their sources and getting the facts, wrestling with editors and fighting against deadlines. It's all so exciting! I know that this isn't reality. I also know that hospitals are not usually teeming with hot twenty-somethings who have affairs and are sometimes (in very special episodes) the patients themselves, or that lawyers probably rarely work out their personal issues while defending and prosecuting serial killers. I don't care. Look! They're protecting their sources! Look! They're fighting the system! So, in no particular order, I've listed some of my favorite journalism/publishing movies: Page One: I saw this documentary just a few weeks ago at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. It deals not with only the ins-and-outs of daily business at the New York Times, but also the way a newspaper might deal with reporting the decline of its own industry. We have for a main focus the highly intelligent and charmingly gruff once-a-crackhead, now-a-media-reporter David Carr, who is both a realist and a staunch (and effective) defender of the Times. One complaint: at only about 90 minutes, it was way short. I could have watched this doc for another hour at least. His Girl Friday: What is often billed as a screwball comedy is actually an exploration of crime, prosecution/persecution, and the responsibilities of journalists. Yes, it has Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell speaking at breakneck speeds and ending their sentences with see?, but this is no romp. It is a gritty, dark, and fairly tragic look at what reporters will and won't do for the story. All the President's Men: Maybe the greatest of all reporter movies, in my opinion. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigate the Watergate cover-up. Man, it doesn't get any better than a couple of reporters connecting the dots, finessing the facts out of a conspirators, and arranging clandestine meetings with shadowy characters in parking garages. Basically, just about any movie starring either Redford or Hoffman between 1968 and the end of the 70s will be worth watching, but this one is perhaps the highpoint. Broadcast News: Information vs. entertainment. Substance vs. image. News producing vs. news making. All that plus Albert Brooks reading and singing at the same time. Gold. The Insider: Controversy at 60 Minutes! A lot of these movies have at their heart a notion of journalistic ethics and the question: what is the responsibility of the reporter? Here, we see what happens when corporate interests interfere with the investigative work of the reporting staff. Also, it'll make you want to quit smoking for real this time. The September Issue: There are occasional benefits to having a slightly scattered mind such as mine, and one of them is that the only remnant of The Devil Wears Prada in my brain is a vague sense that I should have been doing something better with my time. Not so with The September Issue. The documentary follows Vogue editor-in-chief Anna Wintour as she and her crew of photographers and writers and editors prepare for the all-important fall fashion issue of the magazine. Wintour is slick and brilliant and somewhat abusive to her underlings, but her passion for the magazine gets her (somewhat) off the hook for the occasional cutting barb. Sports Night (TV): Aaron Sorkin's first foray into television, a year before The West Wing. Here, we get a stylized glimpse of the backstage of a SportsCenter-esque program. The dialogue and walk-and-talks (and unapologetic liberalism) hint at what Sorkin would develop further in WW. The show's producers (played by Felicity Huffman and Robert Guillaume) are at constant odds with the network higher-ups, who are nearly always shown to be without intelligence or kindness or sufficient reverence for either of traits, which Sorkin and his main characters hold as the highest levels of human development. Too schmaltzy for many modern viewers. The Wire, Season 5 (TV): I'm not convinced that the Baltimore Sun portion of the show's final season ever fully melds with the other plotlines, but it does make me wish creator David Simon would make a whole show about the print news industry. I'd also like Omar: The Movie. Thanks. There are others, of course, which deal with news and publishing either directly (Shattered Glass) or indirectly (The Philadelphia Story; The Last Days of Disco); and I haven't seen The Paper, but it's in my Netflix queue. What's best about these movies and shows, though, is not just that they have exciting plots and snappy dialogue, but that nearly all of them speak to an element of integrity that is too often lacking in our daily news sources. The fact that many of them grapple with modes of written or spoken communication is just extra pleasure for us word nerds.