The movie journalist is always caught up in scandal, gossip and invasions of privacy. Though plenty of movies have been made about authors, poets, and other writers, the physical act of writing and editing rarely makes it into Hollywood journalism. Thankfully, the more sensational aspects of media have made for scathing satire and commentary, loathsome anti-heroes, and pulpy, investigative reporting that the camera loves.
This week’s Nightcrawler features Jake Gyllenhaal as a crime journalist in L.A., but he’s more Travis Bickle than Anderson Cooper. Even other films released this year have fit the template of being more about something else than actually about journalism, from a theater critic in Birdman trying to destroy Riggan Thompson’s career to Jeremy Renner in Kill the Messenger about how noble voices get squashed.
The best movies about journalism are more than the newsroom politics, so in honor of Nightcrawler’s release, here are 10 that pass the copy test.
The greatest movie of all time is also a great film about a man who thought “it would be fun to run a newspaper”. Based on the life of media mogul William Randolph Hearst, Charles Foster Kane’s exploits captured the zeitgeist of the media of its day and our own, in which a tabloid can declare war on Spain or defend the interests of a community even when the paper is owned by the person the community finds to be “a scoundrel”. Kane lost $1 million a year and deigned to keep his paper open for 60 more; sadly the moguls of today have less interest in keeping newspapers both honest and running.
Ace in the Hole
One of Billy Wilder’s lesser-known films is this bitter noir that also serves as a sharp critique of the press. Kirk Douglas stars as a smarmy, cutthroat reporter who adheres to “if it bleeds, it leads” journalism. He finds a man trapped in a cave on a Native American burial ground, bribes guards to get exclusive interview access to the man, then stalls rescue efforts so he can send in more copy. Douglas delivers one sad truth about the media that still stings today: “It’s better one man is trapped than 64, or even 264. You remember one name, but you gloss over the big tragedies. It’s called “human interest”.
Sweet Smell of Success
Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker is one of the most powerful and wittiest movie journalists in a movie filled with some of the sharpest dialogue ever written. The cynical and snarky back talk and the clever analogies are like catnip to wordsmiths. The film is an attack on a real life gossip columnist, Walter Winchell, and his own power struggle during the McCarthy Red Scare. But Lancaster’s calmly threatening tone shows how some journalists are truly corrupted by the power of the pen.
All The President’s Men
All The President’s Men is the pinnacle journalism movie, but it ironically stops short of the moment when the Watergate scandal was truly blown wide open. Alan J. Pakula’s film is a great example of a slow cinema thriller, and rather than being about all the noble things watchdog journalism can represent, it’s a tedious ordeal of straining to see in the dark. It shows how the work of journalism doesn’t entirely involve writing but the phone calls, hang-ups, editing, trial and error and inscrutable note taking on bathroom napkins. The movie works because it does what journalists do best and finds something amazing out of nothing at all.
His Girl Friday
If there was ever a better fit for the fast-talking screwball comedy couple than a pair of ambitious, dry and witty journalists then I haven’t seen it. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell deliver some of their finest comedic work in His Girl Friday, slinging zingers, chasing down leads and rattling off copy over the phone. For Walter Burns and Hildy Johnson, getting the scoop always comes before their relationships, and it makes for some uproarious comedy that drives them together in a way only screwballs can.
The sensationalized fantasy of Network is starting to look more real each day. Howard Beale’s rallying cry “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” comes from a monologue that was once a scary portent, but now is an even graver reality. What’s more, it’s become a mantra for both sides. The film is overly written to the point of mad brilliance, but it’s twisted and scary in its relevance, where death, doom and ranting put asses in the seats rather than out on the streets, and where the business executive really does look like the face of God.
Almost Famous has been the inspiration for many a young arts critic. Cameron Crowe’s film is about the appreciation of music, and it’s reflected in the “uncool” kids who saw themselves as Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs, the famous Rolling Stone music critic. “You wanna be a true friend to them? Be honest, and unmerciful.” Almost Famous is full of wish fulfillment and inspiration, but it’s also full of truth on how to write and think about art.
Bill Cunningham New York
Journalism is as much about the human, lighter side of the news as the dark, and there’s no one more cheerful and human than the charming New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham. This sweet little 2010 documentary gets to know the man behind the “On the Street” column in the Times, giving us a strong sense of visual storytelling and narrative that all photo journalists put into their work.
To be fair, calling Ratatouille a movie about journalism is a stretch. But it has one character who has become an unusual figurehead for contemporary critics, the vicious food critic Anton Ego. “There are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the ‘new’. The world is often unkind to new talent, new creations. The new needs friends,” Ego writes. This is what critics in any field point to when the word “criticism” becomes a four-letter word, and it’s amazing that a fake food critic voiced by Peter O’Toole said it best.
Good Night, and Good Luck
George Clooney’s no-nonsense account of the career of Edward R. Murrow and his fight with Senator Joseph McCarthy perfectly captures the classical spirit of the traditional newsman, from the look to the morality. Roger Ebert called it in his review “a movie about a group of professional newsmen who with surgical precision remove a cancer from the body politic.” The professionalism in Clooney’s film is an echo of why people could make journalists like Murrow and Walter Cronkite worthy of the title “The most trusted man in America.”