Paul Schindler, an IJPC associate,has been collecting journalism movies, as he defines them, since 1980. He maintains a journalism movie page and a blog. A 1974 graduate of MIT, he worked for AP, UPI and the Oregon Journal. His freelance work appeared in numerous newspapers and magazines including Daily News Tonite and the San Jose Mercury. He appeared on public television's The Computer Chronicles for a decade and spent more than two decades in computer journalism. He is married with two grown daughters.
In journalism movie terms, to go from Spotlight, the last film reviewed here, to Batman vs. Superman (BvS), is to go from the sublime to the ridiculous. From an Oscar-winning best film to a movie that struggled to a 29% favorable rating from reviewers. It is mildly entertaining, in a meh sort of way, but it lacks the joie de vivre we have come to expect from superhero movies, thanks to the smash-hit Marvel universe films.
I speak here, in part, as a fan boy. The difference between the films is not a complete surprise. From 1958 to 1963, I purchased every DC superhero comic, and from 1963 to 1970, every Marvel comic. Right from the first, Marvel was messy, chaotic and funny, featuring “real” people with “real” problems in “real” cities (mostly New York). DC was straight-laced and uptight. It was hippies versus the establishment. This is still the basic difference between the products of the two companies, even if no one uses the term “hippie” anymore.
Fast forward to 2016; Marvel has cornered the market on sly, wry and ironic, leaving nothing for DC but dour and didactic. Which is OK if you are a huge fan, but not great, and even less interesting to the casual observer.
And while Lois Lane and Clark Kent continue to be journalists, their profession and its practice take a much more secondary role in this film than in Man of Steel. This film does open with a journalism scene in which Lois (Amy Adams) is interviewing a terrorist somewhere in the desert. “I was not expecting a woman,” he says. “I am not a woman, I am a journalist,” which got a good laugh at the showing I attended (and established Lois’ feminist credentials). It was pretty much the last intentional moment of levity in the film. There were other laughs, but they were of the nature, “Oh my God, I can’t believe they just did that…”
Her photographer, by the way, is shooting wet film (turns out to be critical to a plot point I won’t spoil). Really? Is there any news photographer in the world still shooting film? You can’t even buy it anymore, nonetheless get it developed.
Our first glimpse of Clark (Henry Cavill) is in casual clothes, in a newsroom full of business and business casual. Did he not get the memo? His first interchange with editor Perry White is purse insubordination. Perry wants a sports story. Clark says no. I’ve been in a lot of newsrooms, and that exchange right there would have introduced me to a banker’s box and a security guard in most of them.
Speaking of Perry, I don’t know what newsrooms scriptwriters Chris Terrio and David S. Goyer looked at before dashing off this opus, but Perry’s habit of dictating the headline before the story has been written (heck, before the reporting has been done!) was irritating and unrealistic. The extreme cynicism displayed by the workers and editors at The Daily Planet might have been appropriate in 1942, but it rang false here.
Alas, BvS continues one sad but realistic trend in recent print journalism movies; jokes about the straitened financial condition of print media. Lois asks to fly to Washington from Metropolis (wherever that is). Perry says “Fly coach,” and Lois responds, “economy?” (I thought they were the same). Perry counters, “No extra legroom.”
Near the climax of the film, Lois asks Perry for a chopper from Metropolis to Gotham City, which, for the first time to my knowledge, is placed across a bay from Metropolis, like San Francisco and Oakland. Perry says, “A chopper? We can’t afford a bicycle.” Lois makes some brief, simple, heartfelt plea; Perry changes his mind and orders a helicopter.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is fantasy.
This film is a once in two generations event. Not since I sat down to watch All The President’s Men 40 years ago have I been so captivated and impressed by a cinematic representation of journalism. While I doubt it will have the same effect as the original book and movie (the creation of a years-long bubble of extra interest in journalism), it will certainly stand the test of time and join the pantheon of great journalism films. It is like Citizen Kane and all the versions of The Front Page, in that it is an entertaining work whose central story is journalistic. It is like -30-, Deadline USA, and The Paper in that it accurately depicts (more or less) how the sausage is actually made. But Spotlight and only Spotlight is like ATPM in that it is entertaining, accurate, and deals with the actual process of journalism in a realistic way.
Before I begin to discuss the cinematic aspects of the film, there are two points I need to make. First, some have criticized this film for failing to fully capture the emotional impact of the child sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. This is like criticizing Twinkies for not being nutritious. The scandal is not the focus of this movie. The focus is the investigation by the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of reporters, dramatizing their diligence, hard work, and the obstacles they had to overcome.
Secondly, this film is the most accurate depiction I’ve seen of the subtle pressure that sometimes derails good stories about powerful institutions. Other movies, going back to the 1930s, have dealt with the issue of news suppression in passing. This film takes it on directly. In Spotlight, it is the Catholic Church, one of the most powerful institutions in Boston, that wants the story buried. But it isn’t just Boston; there are sacred cows in every city and town, creating institutional barriers that can get in the way of the news. I worked twice for the Oregon Journal, the now-defunct afternoon daily in Portland, Ore. One of the first things I learned was that Fred Meyer, the paper’s biggest advertiser and a major retail force in the city, was untouchable. Anything negative about Freddie went into the wastebasket, no questions asked. Fellow journalists tell me such commercial taboos existed on most daily papers, back when there were healthy, robust daily papers (I even heard that some newsrooms had actual lists of “No Go” people and institutions). In this case, the institution under fire was charitable not commercial, but the effect is the same: the story that dare not speak its name. One of the strongest aspects of Spotlight is its depiction of the subtle ways in which institutional imperatives about what not to cover are imparted to reporters and editors. Although the characters involved in the conversations in the film are, according to the Spotlight editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson, composites, they still ring true. Like editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), I was invited to kiss the ring of a local power broker (in my case, the Oregon representative of the Southern Pacific), and like Robinson, I had people tell me to (metaphorically) “Keep my nose out of police business.”
Here’s one scene in which this dynamic played out in the film:
KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) This is how it happens, isn't it, Pete?
GUILFOYLE: (As Peter Conley) What's that?
KEATON: (As Walter Robinson) Guy leans on a guy and suddenly, the whole town just looks the other way.
How do I know this film is accurate in spirit, if not in every detail? Because Robinson is appearing with writer/director Tom McCarthy on a promotional tour. Because McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer met with Robinson and his colleagues while writing the script and while shooting the movie. Because Michael Keaton (Robinson) met with his doppelganger, as did the rest of the cast: Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer) and Brian d'Arcy James (Matt Carroll).
I would characterize this film as a journalism procedural, to borrow the term used for television cop shows like CSI. It shows interviews, staff meetings, arguments, discussions, visits to the clip file in the library and research at the courthouse. It also shows luck, both as luck and as the residue of persistence. Sometimes the story advances because something is dropped in your lap (in my case, literally; a corporate 10-K filing). I have engaged in all these activities myself, and they seem to be realistically portrayed. I never doorstopped a pedophile priest, as Pfeiffer does in the film, but I did once wrote a front-page article that cost a man his $100,000-a-year job (based on a footnote in the 10-K) and then phoned him for reaction. I won’t repeat what he said, but in the Journal we simply noted that he had “no printable comment.”
One of the things I really enjoyed about this film was the fact that it was set in 2000, before it was blatantly obvious that newspapers were doomed. I enjoyed watching a well-supported, fully staffed newsroom at work. We won’t see its like again.
I should mention the plot. A new editor comes to town, and notices a column about a pedophile priest. He asks the Globe’s investigative Spotlight team to see if the rot is systemic, as opposed to a few bad apples. The story looks like a nothingburger at first, a dead end like the other efforts to prove that the problem was systemic (the Globe dropped the ball on some previous chances to pursue the story). A few passionate outsiders share their increasingly solid evidence, some sealed court papers get unsealed, an insider has an attack of conscience, and the next thing you know: 600 followup stories in the next 12 months, and a Pulitzer Prize.
Someone, someday, may do a movie about pedophile priests that focuses on their motivation, on the effects they had on the children they buggered, and the ways in which the church failed to respond. That could be a very powerful and dramatic film. I guarantee you no one will ever do a better move about how the story came out.
Strictly speaking, I like to see the journalism story as central to the plot, plus a lot of shoe leather or time in the newsroom. This film does not meet those criteria. But Lois Lane is a pivotal character, and the Daily Planet plays a major role.
In general movie terms, this is a good film, but certainly not a great one. If not for the journalism aspect, I would rate it 3 stars out of 5. I have seen every Superman movie (and most of the episodes of the TV shows), and this is certainly the best written of all of those. It was about time somebody put the effort into writing a Superman film that so clearly has been invested in other superhero movies. Superman has always been kind of a stiff, but this film humanizes him. Still, to say this is the best written of the portrayals isn’t jumping over much of a bar. Credit David S. Goyer & director/writer Christopher Nolan for the best handling yet of Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster’s creation.
We see Lois Lane (Amy Adams) for the first time 34 minutes into the 140 minute film, jumping out of a helicopter at a military facility that doesn’t want her there; one whose appalling lack of security makes it easy for her to sneak out and get the story. Later, we hear one of her stories being read aloud. I say story; it is more like an essay. There is no evidence that she is a columnist or an editorial writer, so that is one weird news story. (To be fair, editor Perry White spikes the “story.”)
I feel obliged to note that while we see journalism being committed, only some of the time is it accurate. Accurate, for example, is the montage in which Lois, applying good old-fashioned shoe leather, manages to find Superman, a man who has spent his life to that point hiding. Less accurate is Lois’ incredibly unprofessional relationship with Superman, one of her major sources. I know, I know, that love thing goes back to 1939 and has always been part of the Superman mythos. But if I am going to look at this film from a journalism perspective, that relationship rankles. At least (so far), she hasn’t slept with him, unlike Lois (Margot Kidder) in the Christopher Reeve Superman movies.
The plot revolves around her. Superman turns himself in on the condition that Lois be released from jail. The villain, General Zod, asks for her to be turned over to him. Needless to say, she survives. The movie ends with the most heartening act (for journalists) in comic book history: Clark Kent’s decision to become a newspaper reporter. That’s one of the main reasons I went into the business—because Superman was a reporter.
One cinematic note: there is a chilling aspect to the horrible, apocalyptic climax in which much of Metropolis is destroyed, with, no doubt, hundreds of thousands of deaths. Not just the fact that traditional action movies usually kill a few dozen or hundred people. Or the fact that when I was a child, hardly anyone died in these city-smashing fights. The thing that caught my eye was a detail, certainly intentional: the aftermath of a building-destroying fight was shown to be gray ash and floating papers. Something no movie maker would have included in a film before 2001. It makes the post-fight scenes extra creepy.
Truth is the best journalism procedural since All The President’s Men, and the first devoted to television news. Most journalism films use journalism as a backdrop to tell some other story. This film is all about the journalism. It is a dramatization of the George W. Bush/National Guard story from 2004, in which Sixty Minutes II almost certainly proved that Bush was granted a cushy National Guard berth that kept him out of Vietnam, but one whose requirements he couldn’t be bothered to fulfill. The gist of the story was forever lost, as were the careers of CBS-TV anchor Dan Rather and producer Mary Mapes (among others), amidst charges that the story was partly based on faked documents. Since this film is based on Mapes’ memoir (Truth and Duty: The Press, The President and The Privilege of Power), its point of view is obvious—and predictable. The story was right and the storm was wrong. And unlike the previous famous storms in CBS News history (Edward R. Murrow and Sem. McCarthy, Mike Wallace and Gen, Westmoreland), the benevolent ownership of William Paley was a distant memory and the debased minions of the new corporate owners folded like a cheap suit in the face of criticism, throwing Mapes and Rather under the bus.
I was 24 when All The President’s Men came out in 1976, and was already committed to a career in journalism, but I saw its results all around me, as young people were attracted to a profession that Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made seem so noble. The film was a dramatic recreation, of course, but at least it hinted at the shoe leather and phone calls required to nail down a major newspaper story. This film, for this first time to my knowledge, realistically depicts the slog of nailing down a major television story, from the tip to the screen. Alas, since things turned out the way they did, Truth is more like to encourage young people to take up welding than it is television news.
I confess I was skeptical of anyone playing Dan Rather on the screen. And, of course, it is notable that the two best journalism procedurals of the last 30 years both starred Robert Redford, at opposite ends of his career. Redford, of course, looks nothing like rather (although he does make a passable effort to sound like him). It makes no difference if Cate Blanchett looks like Mary Mapes, or if Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid and Elizabeth Moss look like the other members of the team, since we didn’t spend two decades looking at them every night.
The film is, of course, a carnival of collapsed timelines, composite characters, imagined dialog, and noble speeches that owe more to L'esprit de l'escalier then eidetic recollection. Still, I followed this story carefully at the time, and the major points are there, accurately depicted. As they say in Hollywood, it captures the artistic truth, if not the literal truth, of the events it examines. In fact, it did remind me of a few things I had forgotten and tell me a few things I didn’t know, an experience you are likely to share, unless you worked for CBS news at the time or knew someone who did.
Writer/Director James Vanderbilt has done a fantastic job with the material, and has managed to dramatize the often static and boring process of creating a television newsmagazine segment in a way that can hold an audience’s attention—albeit probably not totally for the not-quite-required 125-minute length of the film; a half-hour shorter film would have been better.
This is a journalism movie from start to finish. Shia LaBeouf, who plays Ben Shepard, a reporter for a fictional Albany newspaper (newspaper!) is second-billed to Robert Redford and has a plethora of screen time, most of which he spends acting like an actual reporter--well, OK, a somewhat idealized version of an actual reporter.
It is a remarkable film in several ways. In five weeks of release, it earned $3.5 million, which might induce pity, except that with a budget of $2 million, it may be making money now even after prints and marketing. For an ambitious drama without a single explosion, that's saying something.
The talent on display is remarkable.Much of it is older talent, and I like that. Academy Award winners in the film are (in alphabetical order) Julie Christie, Chris Cooper, Robert Redford and Susan Sarandon, although only Redford and Christie get any real screen time. Also in the film, briefly, are Academy Award nominees Terrence Howard , Richard Jenkins, Anna Kendrick, Nick Nolte, and Stanley Tucci. Sarandon's cameo includes a lengthy and heartfelt speech about the need for violence to end the war, which the film is quick to point out is a rationalization for death and destruction at home.
I have not read television executive Neil Gordon's eponymous 2003 novel, upon which the film is based, but judging from this review, Hollywood, as is its wont, has turned the story inside out. What's left is: Weather Underground robs a bank, a guard is killed, everyone goes underground for 30 years (they keep saying 30 years, but really, it would have to be 40 years), then resurfaces, having remarkably transformed themselves into normal citizens (for the most part--except for Julie Christie's Mimi Lurie).
Redford, directing from writer Lem Dobbs's script, does a pretty impressive job of wrangling talent and making Vancouver, B.C. look like New York and Michigan. The film looks low-budget, but it doesn't look cheap. Clearly, if your movie is about people, dialog and ideas, and the stars believe in the vehicle, you can still make a movie for a reasonable amount of money, as long as you're more than 30 miles from the corner of West Beverly Boulevard and North La Cienega Boulevard in Los Angeles.
According to this blog post, Redford was aware of the fact that it was a journalism movie. He said, "...I have such a keen interest in the media, because I think it plays such an important role in our society, I’m very concerned if it’s ever it’s threatened in any way." Redford added, "So in this case the idea of Shia’s character was to me more interesting if it was complicated by the fact that is he going after the story for his own personal aggrandizement?" Despite this support for the toiling reportorial masses, Redford's character gets off a few zingers to the reporter concerning his lack of concern for the truth of what he publishes, or the effects of publishing it.
That is the central question of the journalism aspect of this movie. LaBeouf's character, Shepard, is an obnoxious twit, door-stepping his subjects, and showing the kind of blithe unconcern for the effects of his work that led Wellington to tell a book author, "Publish and be damned." In my experience, it is one thing to be a Washington reporter and sink a public figure's career, another to out a private individual in a small town. The question must always be, I think, is the public benefit greater than the private destruction. In this case, Shepard shows no hesitation about destroying a successful public-interest attorney who was accused 30 years earlier of complicity in a bank robbery/murder. Journalists, of course, are not in the forgiveness business, but they must perform balancing acts all the time, and many of those performed by Shepard aren't particularly savory.
Stanley Tucci has a couple of nice scenes as the editor of Shepard's newspaper, including the one where he declines to send the reporter to Michigan to track down the story, on the grounds that "I just fired my sports department." There it is again, that recurring leitmotif of the modern journalism movie--this place is dying, and you want me to pay your expenses? Despite a world beat on a major story, it seems likely Shepard was offered a buyout package a few weeks or months after the end of the movie. Or just laid off, to be replaced by AP copy.
Shepard's behavior, to out it mildly, is unethical. He bribes a public official for information critical to his investigation; he would never have uncovered Redford's real identity without it. This is the same kind of activity that has landed a bunch of British journalists in police stations, if not yet jail, in the last two years. He sleeps with a source. In the immortal words of Sullivan v. New York Times, he publishes with a disregard for truth or falsity, about people who may or may not be public figures, with what may or may not be actual malice.
On the upside, he does report like a real reporter. He never holds a gun, jumps from an airplane, or blackmails a public official--except in the sense that all journalists blackmail sources with, "I'll print what I have if you don't give me more." He does do that. But mostly he does interviews, makes phone calls, writes stories, makes long drives, undertakes a reporting trip with no assurance that his expenses will be covered and takes advantage of the way his stories change the behavior of their subjects.
Watching journalism on the cheap in a movie makes me yearn for the days of the probably apocryphal story of an American reporter in Africa in the 1800s, who submits an expense report that includes an elephant for transportation. The business office says unless he can produce the elephant, they won't pay. He resubmits his expenses, without the elephant, but with the same total. "There's an elephant buried in here somewhere; see if you can find it," the reporter allegedly said. Those days are long gone.
(released in June 2012)
It is weird that Woody Allen should follow up up his most successful film ever (Midnight in Paris) with another film that appears to have broad audience appeal. After years as an art-house darling, he seems to have recovered his touch. As you know, my reviews are about impressions, rather than the tic-tock of recounting the plot. You can find plenty of that elsewhere. There are several stories here, and the participants do NOT run into each other. In fact, two of the plots are performed entirely in Italian. Woody replows ground he has plowed before, on the nature of fame, with a story about Roberto Benigni becoming famous for no reason, than anonymous again. He also replows his sexual innuendo ("Don't knock masturbation. It's sex with someone I love," he said in Annie Hall) when Penélope Cruz (who plays a prostitute) tours the Vatican, looks up at the Sistine Chapel, and when asked, "Can you imagine doing all that work on your back," answers "Sure." (This is not a spoiler; it is in the trailer.) Alec Baldwin participates in another old Allen trope, where he walks through scenes interacting with his younger self (Jesse Eisenberg) , warning him not to fall for Ellen Page--in much the same way as Tony Roberts interacting with Woody's movie parents in Annie Hall. And Allen himself reverts to form, adopting his nebbish personality in a story about a man who can only sing well in the shower (yup. Just what you'd expect, and still it's funny). I saw it twice, in LA and Pleasant Hill, CA and the theaters were jammed to the rafters both time. If the open this wide, it will kill. Despite the subtitles. It is funny, it is clever, it is beautiful, and if it isn't thought-provoking, it was worth seeing twice.
The film does not break new ground in terms of its treatment of the media. The photographers—we call them paparazzi, an eponym from Fellino’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita, which, ironically, was also shot in Rome—are a ravening, shouting, intrusive and impolite hoard. They are rude and scary. The television reporters are on beyond vacuous, asking questions like “What did you have for breakfast.” When Benigni saids, “It looks like rain,” the reporter turns to the camera and says, “There it is; he says it looks like rain.” In a scene reminiscent of Howard Cosell’s cameo in Bananas (in which he provided a sportscaster’s narration to a sexual tryst), a female Italian TV reporter promises to cover Benigni’s morning shave, in his bathroom, “from start to finish.” And, of course, in a tight bow to modernity, there are, apparently, no print reporters.
To prove that Woody Allen has one or two feet firmly planted in the past, in his story (he plays a retired music promoter), everyone anxiously reads every word of the review of a musical performance in the newspaper; the singer’s mother even cuts out the article. It might have been more realistic if they were gathered around a computer screen, or looking at the first tweets. In a few years, such scenes will no doubt seem as quaint to viewers as scenes of families gathered around the radio in movies from the 30s.
(released in June 2012)
4 stars out of 5
I don't put much stock in the Rotten Tomatoes website, but I must note in passing that this film got a 91 percent rating from critics and a 93 percent rating from viewers, which strikes me as odd for what amounts to a little art-house film. IMDB's summary: "Three magazine employees head out on an assignment to interview a guy who placed a classified ad seeking a companion for time travel." Director Colin Trevorrow spun this delightful tale of weirdness from the script of Derek Connolly. Kenneth (Mark Duplass) places the ad which attracts intern Darius (Aubrey Plaza) and sleazy journalist Jeff (Jake M. Johnson) to Ocean Shores, Wash. (I've never been, but it apparently exists) in an effort to turn out a magazine story. I will not tell you how it ends, but it is sweet, clever, intriguing, and it is art in the sense that it is subject to multiple interpretations. The only thing that is crystal clear is that the journalist is a dirtbag. And this movie meets my definition of journalism, because the major protagonists are all journalists, and we see them committing journalism.
Once can only hope that Darius is not really learning much from this internship, because the lessons it is teaching are all wrong. We see the newsroom of a fictional city magazine; it is nice enough, and prosperous looking, showing that, in movies at least, there is not the overhang of imminent doom that appears in every modern journalism novel. Jeff’s boss is a rude, unpleasant jerk. The office seems nice enough, but the interns are mistreated and used as gofers most of the time. Jeff volunteers to cover the story, and demands that two interns go with him—as it turns out, so that they will do his work for him, while he tries to reconnect with a high school sweetheart who as friended him on Facebook. The fact that he is a shallow clod is not directly related to his journalism, so we can let that go.
Back in the 1970s, when I attended meetings of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), they drummed into us that, when investigating an important story, it is all right to misrepresent yourself, as long as you don’t claim to be someone who can compel cooperation (you can’t pretend to be a policeman, for example). The hardest part of that rule, really, was the “important story” part. Most journalists do not believe it is ethical to misrepresent yourself constantly, on every story. You wouldn’t know that from this film.
Jeff is quite possible the worst interviewer ever to appear on screen, and quickly alienates Kenneth, the man who placed to ad. So he sends in the intern to befriend the eccentric man who thinks he can travel in time. Here, a very clear ethical line is crossed, as Darius becomes Kenneth’s girlfriend, while pumping him for information. It definitely tarnishes whatever is left of journalism’s reputation. In short, yet another film where journalists are not depicted well.
(released in January 2011)
It used to be said that the mark of a true intellectual was the ability to listen to the William Tell Overture and not think of The Lone Ranger; similarly, you were pretty cultured if you could hear Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Flight of the Bumblebee and not think of the Ranger's sibling program, The Green Hornet. It has been so long since either was on radio or television that the test is no longer valid. In fact, most people under 40 haven't heard either musical selection, nonetheless associated them with a pulp fiction hero.
Anyway, people of a certain vintage will remember the Green Hornet radio program from NBC and the Mutual Radio Network; people of my vintage will remember the television show from the 60s. But no one remembers a Green Hornet like this. Seth Rogen and his writing partner Evan Goldberg adapted the Green Hornet, officially created by lawyer George W. Trendle (who bought out co-creators writer Fran Striker and director James Jewell). Those with long memories will recall that Britt Reid (a nephew of Dan Reid, the Lone Ranger) was a newspaper publisher by day, crime-fighter by night, assisted by his faithful driver Kato. Rogen plays with the myth, making Reid the wastrel son of a newspaper publisher, and Kato the brains of the outfit--a lovely old show-business trope, used to great effect in such films as Gene Wilder's 1975 comedy The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Although the New Yorker, among other outlets, savagely trashed the film, I found it amusing and clever. Rogen slimmed down quite a bit for the role, and while he plays a fool, he isn't an utter fool. Cameron Diaz is eye candy in a few scenes, most likely to reduce the risk of the bromance being considered insufficiently manly. Alas, Rogen can't quite bring himself to stop playing immature me.
However, this is what I call a journalism movie. There are numerous scenes in the office of the fictitious Los Angeles Daily Sentinel, including both the editorial offices and the press room. There are front page meetings, and discussions of journalistic ethics. Reid's job as the publisher. successor to his father, is not incidental to the proceedings, it is critical. By the way, the issue of publisher interference looms large in the film. Britt Reid is more of a Hearst than a Chandler or Sulzberger, which is to say that he interferes in what his newspaper publishes. He imposes his news judgment (run more about the Green Hornet) on his editor. On the other hand, his father, the late publisher, engages in a form of editorial interference that most journalists consider substantially more pernicious: censoring the news to meet the requirements of a powerful poliltician. Rogen and Goldberg clearly feel pushing stories is ethical, suppressing them is not. In real life, I am not sure there is much of a distinction; interference is interference.
Alas, there hasn't been a newspaper in a building this big or offices this nice in some time (outside of The New York Times, the price of whose new building is one of the factors strangling it). But someday, when all the newspapers are gone, some of the scenes in this film will serve to remind us of bygone glory. There are one or two throwaway lines about "these difficult times for newspapers," but if you go with the visuals, rather than the dialog, you'd think print publications were still minting money. My daughter remarked, at the end of the film, "Wait, hyou mean they want us to think his family got rich owning a newspaper? How?"
(released in November 2010)
Morning Glory certainly meets anyone's requirements for definition as a journalism movie: its protagonist is a journalist, and in this film she spends nearly all her time at work--which is not surprising, given that the fact that she spends all her time at work is a big part of her problem. It also deals, in an entertaining way, with several big media issues: hard news versus fluff (including Pomeroy's refusal to say the word "fluff), the primacy of ratings, and the fact that news can be interesting (like a "bran doughnut.")
The star power in this romantic comedy is breathtaking. Rachel McAdams is the perky Holly Hunter-like dynamo Becky, the newly minted executive producer, Harrison Ford is the crusty network anchor Mike Pomeroy, humiliated to be put on the morning show, Diane Keaton is Colleen Peck, the co-anchor who has seen executive producers and co-anchors come and go, and Patrick Wilson plays the hunky love interest and fellow producer Adam Bennett. But of course, as someone once remarked of Hoagy Carmicheal's Stardust, "without Mitchell Parish, it would just be la-da-da."
The director, Roger Michell, has a single standout credit, Notting Hill. But the person who wrote the words (lyrics) before the music was even imagined is the prolific and amazing screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna. We'll try to overlook her Harvard education and concentrate on what she's done since: 27 Dresses, The Devil Wears Prada and Laws of Attraction. Her projects attract great talent because she writes great stories and great dialog.
I have never worked in morning television, but I have worked the morning shift at both a wire service and a newspaper, and I was a TV technician for a few years in my younger days. Plus, I am fascinated by morning television and have read nearly every word in every profile and book ever written on the subject. Thus, I can testify that McKenna has done her homework, rendering a heart-warming and highly accurate picture of the world of morning news in general and morning television in particular. There are so many great lines: "We're just like the Today show, but without the ratings or respect." "We're in fourth place, after Today, Good Morning America, and whatever that thing is on CBS."
Several other reviews have noted an aspect I wish to underline; the film plays up the fact that people who work together in a foxhole become fast friends, even family. It happened to me in every hard news job I worked, much more than in television or trade press journalism. Friendships are annealed by the fires of shared hard work, odd hours, outside attack and adversity. And McKenna, despite her educational disadvantage, captures that beautifully.
To be honest, I'd go to a movie to watch Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton read the phone book, but here they do so much more. I suppose I owe you a brief plot summary: Becky is fired from Good Morning New Jersey, but lands a job at the fourth-place morning show of the fictional IBS network. The offices are in the basement, as is the morale. She fired the preening idiot male co-anchor and replaces him with out-to-pasture network veteran Mike Pomeroy. Anyone who best against her raising the ratings high enough to save the doomed show, and developing enough work-life balance to conduct an affair with Adam Bennett has obviously never seen a romcom before.
I haven't pushed a button or zoomed a camera in a TV station since 1973, but many of my classmates and former colleagues are still in the business, and I tour when I can. Thus, I was thrilled by every technical aspect of the film; the control room, the studio, the remotes, even the prompters. It all seemed accurate to me, and it was just there, quietly in the background of the plot, adding verisimilitude to a loving portrait of what, to me, is a fascinating world.No review is complete, of course, without some reference to the effect of the art on the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture. This one is an almost unadulterated love song to the practice of journalism. Curmudgeonly Pomeroy gets in a few licks about the death of journalism as he knew it, but perky Becky counterpunches with, "Would it kill you to do a story people enjoyed, that people want to see?" (that's actually a paraphrase). In any case, the reporters and producers care about the news, do their jobs professionally (if a bit obsessively), don't swam any celebrities (while we're watching, anyway), and generally provide the most upbeat, accurate and professional view of the modern media I've seen in a long time.
(released in October 2009 in Australia, August 2010 in United States)
There isn't much more you could ask for out of a movie than consideration of the themes of loss, desire, Mao's Cultural Revolution, freedom and family. All of them are dealt with here, in a film "based on real events." The scenery is amazing, the story is moving (albeit hackneyed) and the dancing is amazing. It is the story of a boy plucked from his village and sent to Beijing to be a ballet dancer. He is there during the cultural revolution, and Madame Mao is show turning the company from traditional ballet to the agitprop soldiers/guns ballets which gripped China during the late 60s and early 70s. The dancer must decide whether to go home or defect. I'll bet you can guess what he chooses. I came to this film by word of mouth and am now pleased to pay it forward.
There are half a dozen scenes in the film which involve journalists. Early on a reporter for the Houston newspaper interviews the ballet dancer. I don't know since when newspaper reporters carry microphones, but this one does. Later, the dancer is shown a story about him on the front page of the Houston Chronicle. In my day, movies at least made an attempt to make their fake newspapers look real. This is the first time I can recall a real newspaper nameplate being put at the top of such an obviously fake page. The typesetting and layout looked more appropriate to a photocopied newsletter. Near the end there is a mass coverage event outside the Chinese consulate, with reporters line up for live shots, and a press scrum as the dancer and his entourage leave the consulate. The scrum is no better or worse than most of the press scrums of recent years, which is to say it consists mostly of electronic media types shouting questions that go unanswered at people who seem more like victims than subjects.
Journalism involvement in this film is minor, and won't do the craft any favors, either in terms of realistic depiction or the public image of press scrum behavior.
(released in March 2010)
2.5 stars out of 5
Over at my own blog, I have a reviewing partner, Neal Vitale, whose opinions often differ from mine (and have since we worked together in college in 1972). He awarded The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo (or TGWTDT, as they are calling it in Hollywood) a rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Vitale declared, “This excellent adaptation of the dense and complicated novel by the late Swedish author Stieg Larsson immediately joins the ranks of powerful, gripping, and graphic thrillers like Jonathan Demme's The Silence Of The Lambs and David Fincher's Se7en.” Because my goal here is to review films from both the perspective of their portrayal of journalism and their percentage of journalism content, I can only offer 2.5 stars. In other words, about average.
Ironic that he should mention Fincher, since Fincher and actor Daniel “James Bond” Craig are supposed to be lined up for the American remake of the film, with the likes of Ellen Page and Natalie Portman under consideration for the role of the tattooed female assistant. Of course, as Samuel Goldwyn almost certainly never said, “An oral agreement isn’t worth the paper it is written on,” so it remains to be seen what kind of star power will be attached to this film when it is redone in English.
In the meantime, the artifact we have before us is a subtitled Swedish adaptation of the wildly successful 1st novel in Larsson’s posthumous "Millennium Trilogy." As a journalism film, TGWTDT seems promising, since the central character is a journalist, and the events of the film are kicked off by his conviction for criminal libel in an investigation of a Swedish industrialist.
The journalism aspect of the film bookends the other action; at the start we see the protagonist Mikael Blomkvist at his failing magazine Millennium, preparing to head off for jail because he was passed phony documents in the course of his investigation. At the end, [SPOILER ALERT] quite satisfyingly, we are told in a montage voiceover accompanied by television news footage that good has prevailed over evil.
This isn’t much of a spoiler, however. In fact, it is almost impossible to spoil this film because of its dense and complicated plot—which has almost nothing to do with journalism. Once the action has been kicked off, the film is a character study of Blomkvist and of his Goth female researcher/computer hacker Lisbeth Salander, and of their relationship. It is about corruption, sexual and financial, and in a small way, about Sweden during World War II.
What this film isn’t, by my definition, is a journalism movie. It is a murder mystery, with a Miss Marple-like amateur detective at its core, whose skills were perhaps honed by his profession, but not in an obvious way. Once he has left the magazine office, we never see him commit journalism again until the end.
It would be cool for me (and, I image, all other present and former journalists) to see Brad Pitt assay another role as a reporter (he’s also been mentioned for the American version). But whoever gets the part, their influence on the image of the journalist in popular culture will be less significant than that of the tattoos on the actress who plays Lisbeth.
(released in April 2009)
4 stars out of 5
Does this sound like the cast of a direct to video production to you? Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon, Angela Bassett, Alan Alda, Vera Farmiga, David Schwimmer, Courtney B. Vance and Noah Wyle. Heck, Floyd Abrams, the famed first amendment lawyer who frequently represents the New York Times, even has a cameo as the judge. No, my friends, this is Oscar-bait. Except that Yari Film Group, the production company, went under in the bad economy and took a lot of pretty classy looking films with it. At least this one (unlike, say, Accidental Husband) actually got a U.S. release as a DVD.
I won't spend a lot of time beating a dead horse, but it is difficult for me to characterize this as a journalism movie. Yes, the main character is a journalist. Yes, the film's central dilemma is one of the most important issues in serious investigative journalism: the need to protect your sources. But there is precious little journalism on display here. Lots of human drama, lots of angst, lots of moral ambiguity. But precious little journalism.
The film makes it clear with an announcement before the title that this film is not based on any story or character. That is, of course, because it is so obviously based on the story of Judith Miller of the New York Times, and her jail term for civil contempt for refusing to give up her source for a story she never published about Valerie Plame's identity as a covert CIA agent.
Yes, they change her name, and move the story to a Washington, D.C. newspaper (actually the Memphis Commercial-Appeal). They put her in jail for 18 months, rather than the 85 days Miller actually served. And although there was speculation that Patrick Fitzgerald would do to Miller what he does to Kate " Rachel Armstrong" Beckinsale in the film, Miller just walked away at the end of her term.
In fact, writer/director Rod Lurie changes just enough of the facts to make the case even more ambiguous than the fairly ambiguous real-life case it was based on. It's a weird feeling to watch the film if you followed the Miller/Plame case. If you're like me, you'll find youself saying to the person watching with you, "That really happened," "that almost happened," "something like that happened," and "that's the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen." Which is, of course, the difference between fiction and non-fiction.
But I'm not fact-checking the film (at least not in detail), I'm reviewing it.
To summarize the plot: an attempt is made to assassinate the President. The finger is pointed at Venezuela, which is bombed in retaliation. Armstrong gets word that a CIA agent went to Venezuela and could find no evidence of its involvement (shades of Plame's husband, Ambassador Wilson, finding no trace of the yellowcake Uranium that was never sent to Iraq). She obtains the name of the agent. We don't see this even at first, and I can't say anything about it without spoiling a major plot point. Suffice it to say you'll be surprised.
The use of the agent's name rings false to me; the newspaper story doesn't need the name of the agent. Which means the whole film hangs on an unnecessary revelation.
Matt " Patton Dubois" Dillon is appointed special prosecutor. He tells Armstrong she's going to jail--not prison, jail--until she talks. She doesn't talk and goes to jail (shades of Judith Miller).
Frankly, she's a wee bit sanctimonious for my taste. The judge offers her a day or two to think about it, she says, "I'll never talk," which results in her being whisked instantly to jail without so much as a toothbrush. We see her miserable life in prison, her marriage dissolve, her relationship with her son deteriorate, and her face get messed up in a jailhouse fight.
Actually, I can't say a lot more about the plot without spoiling the film. It's complicated and interesting, however. At one point, the agent, Vera "Erica Van Doren" Farmiga, is told she wasn't the only CIA agent sent to Venezuela, just the only one who didn't find any evidence of involvement. The vice president's chief of staff is shown (shades of "Scooter" Libby in the Plame case). Alan "Alan Burnside" Alda, playing the paper's outside first amendment counsel (Floyd Abrams in the Judith Miller case) notes that, at some point, journalists "went from being the white knight to being the dragon."
Despite that pessimistic note, for the most part the characterization of print journalists in this film is as hard-working, noble and principled protectors of the republic. Celebrity TV journalism gets a dusting, as a somewhat Barbara Walters-like Angelica "Molly Meyers" Torn is depicted as shallow and crass.
And, in a refreshing change of pace (probably because of the film's long gestation period), there's not a single reference to the collapse of the newspaper industry. In today's world, that makes it look like a fairy tale.
If you are, or ever have been, a journalist, the film may well affect you as it did me: get you to ask yourself if there was any principle worth doing relatively hard time for. If you can get bast the fundamental implausible moment of the plot--naming the officer who wrote the report instead of simply describing the report--this film can be engrossing as entertainment. Or, if you are cursed with too much knowledge of the real events, as an ongoing effort to separate the fact from the fiction. Either way, it's worth renting.
(released in April 2009)
3 stars out of 5
In order, this is a film about homeless cello player Nathaniel Ayers (Jamie Foxx), Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez (Robert Downey Jr.), mental illness, homelessness, friendship, and, both last and least, journalism. If Steve Lopez had been a social worker, this wouldn't be a journalism film at all.
Sadly, it seems you can't do a newspaper movie in 2009 without at least passing reference to the disaster which is the financial state of the industry. Catherine Keener, who plays Lopez's ex-wife and editor, chats with him about the relationship between layoffs and a falling stock price. In the background in one scene, a reporter is scene leaving, accompanied by security guards. In another, Keener is in a layoff meeting, when she looks out the window and sees Ayers.
There are a few nice touches. We get some shots of the running press, followed by a zoom into the front page of a bundle of newspapers--shots we have been seeing for 80 years that I know of. Delivery of the papers--a thrower in the back of a pickup truck--reflects modern practice and is a shot I haven't seen before. It will make a nice documentary touch someday when papers are no longer delivered.
The messy newsroom shot echoes a thousand others as well; if not for the substitution of good chairs, florescent lights and computers for broken-down chairs, lousy lighting and Royal typewriters, it could be 1929. Add up all the newsroom banter, and the newspaper content amounts to about 10% of the film.
Lopez's house is about right for a Los Angeles Times columnist. He certainly drinks like a newspaper reporter, and has a reporter's bad attitude about stories in which he is disinterested. He dresses down for a modern reporter, in my experience. I don't expect a coat and tie, but I do expect at least business casual wardrobe, rather than "Sunday softball in the park." It's one thing to dress that way for a visit to skid road, another entirely to dress that way on a day in the newsroom.
Speaking of skid road, please tell me the affect of the area was heightened for the movie. God forbid there is any place in America, much less Los Angeles that looks like the Hell on Earth depicted in the film's scenes of low-rent LA.
One could argue that the whole film is about journalism, because it consists entirely of Lopez researching his column. I don't buy that argument. Lopez and his job are merely a framing device for a story about Ayers.
Ayers was a child cello prodigy. His unmedicated mental illness made him homeless. Lopez writes a column about him, and then, unprofessionally, becomes his friend. The film explores issues of mental health--in particular, it offers, cinematically, the best explanation I've ever seen for why the mentally ill homeless prefer the distracting outdoors to the quiet indoors. It explores issues of responsibility for a fellow human, the nature of friendship, and the professional requirement for distance from subjects in journalism.
This is a film to see if you're a fan of Downey or Foxx, or interested in a moving depiction of the nexus of homelessness and mental illness. It deals tangentially with the issue of journalism ethics with regard to source relations. It deals only casually with the practice of journalism.
All movies that feature a character identified as a journalist contribute in some way to the public image of journalists. This film will lead the public to think that writers who profile specific homeless people befriend them and try to help them get off the street. Lopez apparently did this. Most reporters don't. Deciding whether this public image of journalists is good or bad for the profession is a choice that's made above my pay grade. On the upside, at least the reporter is not depicted as a heartless (albeit professionally ethical) bastard.
(released in April 2009)
4 stars out of 5
Cards on the table; the closest I ever came to blowing the lid off something was when I revealed the sneaky rehiring of a disgraced former power company executive, who was re-fired after my article appeared--and all I had to do was read the footnotes in the proxy statement.
I'm going to divide this review into two parts: about the movie qua journalism movie, then a few words about the movie as an entertainment.
By my ranking, it falls short of five stars on both fronts. As a journalism movie, it offers a few howlers, and a basic plot hole. As entertainment, it's fast-paced and entertaining, but not exactly thought-provoking or artistic.
There are two scenes in this film which guarantee it a place in the pantheon of journalism movies, both of which could be said to be paying homage to the past. The montage of the newspaper being printed which plays out under the end credits recalls the similar black and white montage which opened Frank Capra's 1928 classic black and white film The Power Of The Press, but of course this time the scene is in color and features modern equipment, including a newsprint delivery robot.
The other scene which guarantees the film immortality is a pale echo of Humphrey Bogart's, "That's the sound of a free press, baby," from Deadline USA, and William Conrad's, "and it only costs a nickel" speech from -30-. Universal has cleverly removed all trace of the script from the Internet, so I'll have to wait for the DVD to transcribe the speech, but Russell Crowe, as Washington Globe reporter Cal McAffrey lectures Ben Affleck as Rep. Stephen Collins with a speech that begins, "Why, because people don't read newspapers any more?" and ends with "printing the truth." It's a pale echo because it's short, both in terms of length and soaring rhetoric.
Also pale is the echo of the slammed doors that faced Woodward and Bernstein (or Hoffman and Redford, if you will) in All The President's Men. In this case, Rachel McAdams, playing Internet columnist Della Frye, conducts "real" reporting, in the face of slammed door after slammed door, hang up after hangup. While not as relentless as the cinematic original, it marks the first time in years a journalism movie has spent much quality time showing reporters doing actual reporting. Which is kind of amazing, since there is no sign of journalism in the résumés of screenwriters Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy and Billy Ray--except that Billy Ray did write another excellent recent journalism film, Shattered Glass, about the downfall of the New Republic's Stephen Glass (reviewed here).
Many of the old familiar journalism movie memes are on display here. One is the messy newsroom, with the messiest desk belonging to the protagonist. In an era when most screen heroes are middle or upper middle class--as are most journalists-Crowe plays McAffrey as an affable Irish drunk. The kind of person who couldn't get a job at a daily newspaper in any market larger than Waco, Texas, and certainly not at the Washington Post clone which is the Washington Globe in this film. The recent corporate takeover may seem "ripped from the headlines," but it too is venerable, most visibly in Deadline USA, where the new owners are shutting the paper down, as opposed to merely emasculating it, as they are in this film. The crusty managing editor is a journalism movie trope older than sound pictures, with the twist that it can now sometimes be a woman. It was Glenn Close in The Paper, and now it is Helen Mirren as Cameron Lynne in State Of Play, turning in another first class performance, in which she ravages the reporters in private and defends them in public, just like a real ME. And, when the story is hot enough, she tells the accountant to buzz off when he reminds her that holding the presses costs $20,000 an hour. OK, it's true only an idealized managing editors would ever do that, and almost none today, more's the pity.
On the other hand, the movie introduces at least two features that I have not seen before in a Hollywood journalism film: an Internet desk (whose columnist Della Frye is an equal partner in the reporting of the big story), and frequent references to the imminent collapse of the newspaper--not from a sale or merger, but just from the end of newspapers in general.
The engine that runs the story, alas, is a conflict of interest that would not be tolerated at any newspaper larger than a weekly shopper: Crowe, the central reporter on the story is best friend of and former roommate of the central figure, Affleck, and the managing editor knows it. A reporter might get away with this if he kept his management in the dark, but that's not how it's played here. In fact, R.B. Brenner of the Washington Post, who served as a journalism consultant on State of Play, says he told the filmmakers this was unrealistic. They decided the story was, with reference to this element, more important than fidelity to real-world journalistic practice. (Check out an audio interview with Brenner at the Washington Post site)
Strictly from the entertainment point of view, State of Play is a bit pat, but with a few nice twists. A young man is shot to death in an alley. A young woman jumps in front of a train. Turns out the murder and the suicide are related. The police don't want to talk, but as always, the reporter runs rings around the detectives. The woman is an aide to the senator, who admits, early on, that he was having an affair with his intern. But it turns out the reporter (is having? Once had?) an affair with the senator's wife as well. There are mercenaries, and they are certainly all more noble than most mercenaries I've ever heard of, and more cooperative with reporters. The reporters work hard to find the truth (even though the police tell them to lay off), and have the story put to bed when there is a sudden last minute twist. I don't do spoilers, so aside from telling you that the film doesn't end when it seems to, I won't tell you exactly what happens.
When it rains it pours; after months of no mainstream Hollywood journalism movies, State of Play opened April 17. The Soloist opens April 24; it features Steve Lopez, of the Los Angeles Times (Robert Downey,Jr,) writing about, and saving, a homeless but musically talented Jamie Foxx, and will be reviewed here as soon as possible.
(released on DVD October 2008)
3.5 stars out of 5
Hello Sweetheart! Get me a ticket to the 1934 depicted in Kit Kittredge: An American Girl. You know, the one where the fictional Cincinnati Register newsroom is neat as a pin and cute as a button and where the copy boy is good looking and smart. The city editor of this most wonderful of never-existent newspapers is a screamer with a heart of gold, who delivers a freelancer's first published article to her house personally, on Thanksgiving Day no less. His paper looks like one swell, prosperous place from the outside--I'm sure the building we see is houses prosperous commercial businesses in Ontario, where the film was shot (hello runaway production!) No doubt, in the land where such an editor runs such a paper, there is no Internet and Sunday papers will weigh five pounds.
This is an all-female production, and as such, may have been aimed to just one side of my demographic. All seven executive producers (including Julia Roberts) are women, as was the writer Ann (Chronicles of Narnia, Nights in Rodanthe) Peacock and the director, Patricia (Mansfield Park) Rozema. Not to mention the precociously talented Abigal Breslin as the eponymous Margaret Mildred 'Kit' Kittredge.
The film is set in the Depression. Kit wants nothing more than to be published in the local paper. She visits the newsroom and is rejected out of hand, twice, but with the pluck that can often only be mustered by a character based on a popular line of dolls, she keeps at it, writing on a typewriter and taking pictures until she gets the story that's big enough to break into the business.
By the way, Abigail Breslin says she was a little baffled by the lack of a screen on the typewriter. When my daughters say that, they're joking, but they're 24 and 27; I suppose it is likely pre-teen children in non-journalist homes have never seen a typewriter in person and possible they've never seen one in a movie or TV show. She does something you rarely see depicted; she often gets two keys stuck together.
Kit's obsession with journalism is a framing device for the film; her narration comes in the form of stories, letters to her father (who loses his business and has to go to Chicago to try to find work) and journal entries. The newspaper scenes are concentrated at the beginning and end of the film; in the middle is good, simple melodrama. The movie offers a deft mix of the serious and humorous. Homes are foreclosed, eggs are sold, dresses are crafted from feed bags, and hobos turn out to be people just like you and me. The police seem to be bigoted dolts at first, but turn out, like the city editor, to have hearts of gold.
The cast is breathtaking, and everyone turns in a realistic performance--although I think the villain, Stanley Tucci, would have enjoyed twirling his moustache if it had been long enough. Chris O'Donnell appears briefly, but the bread and butter work is done by an ensemble cast which included Jane Krakowski, Wallace Shawn (as the city editor), Max Thieriot, Willow Smith, Glenne Headly, Zach Mills, Madison Davenport and Joan Cusack (is there nothing that woman can't do?)
A lovely family film with a conscience and one eye on being educational and informative, Kit Kittredge is an entertaining piece of fluff that doesn't explore journalism issue in any serious way, but doesn't do the image of the journalist any harm--except possibly making people think it can be practiced credibly by 10-year-olds. Of course, I'm sure there are a few potential journalists who will be scared off by the quoted rate of a penny a word for freelance, just as I'm sure there are still places that pay that rate...
This review is a week later than it might have been, because I recently obtained a Blu-Ray High Definition DVD player, and was determined to watch the film in that format. Not for me the dubious pleasures of watching a rented copy of a movie on an iPod or PC. Alas, while the two local Blockbuster stores had floor to ceiling displays of Kit DVDs (guaranteed in stock), they had exactly one copy each of the Blu-Ray version, which was instantly rented by the kind of person for doesn't know the meaning of due dates or common courtesy. So, I waited as their leisurely perusal of the film stretched out. It was worth the wait. If you haven't seen a Blu-Ray DVD of a movie, check it out in the store and then go buy one--assuming you already have a high-def TV.
3.5 stars out of 5
You can find a more traditional review of Clint Eastwood's film, The Changeling at my blog. This brief note is about the aspects of the film that touch on journalism, along with questions of historical accuracy.
The film makes an interesting (and, I am sure, inadvertent) comment on the vast changes in the image of the journalist between the 1920s and the present. In the silent films of the 20s, most journalists were depicted as noble fighters for the underdog. A few stole pictures of dead loved ones (just as Hearst employees and other yellow journalists did in real life), but for the most part, at least when they were massed in packs, they were reasonably polite. "Press packs" in modern films are scary, ravenous, shouting, pushy hordes, especially the photographers. I wondered as I went into this film, whether the media scenes would be period-appropriate or projections of the modern image back in time. Apparently, Eastwood's reputation as a stickler for period detail extends to his portrayal of the media. For the most part, the questions came one at a time, and bore a reasonable relationship to the issues at hand. The press packs were large, which was appropriate because LA, like most major cities, had a lot more newspaper at that time.
Without, I hope, offering too many spoilers, let me say I had hoped that the traditional crusading journalist would play a role in revealing the corruption and venality of the LA Police Department. Alas, because the story was true to life, the hero was John Malkovich's character, Rev. Gustav Briegleb. [In real life, he did not have a radio pulpit, but was friends with another minister who did. The radio station on which he is shown broadcasting was licensed in Pomona but never went on the air.] According to the LA Times, many of the headlines in the movie are actual headlines from newspaper of the era, part of the meticulous research of screenwriter J. Michael Straczynski (a former LA Times and LA Herald-Examiner reporter). If you are in tune to such nuances (or, perhaps, over-sensitive to them), you can be saddened by the apparent fact that, then as now, newspaper reporters for the most part are simply stenographers. That is, they preserve for posterity the version of reality presented to them by official sources (Judith Miller anyone?) rather than probing for the truth. The first draft of history is usually dictated.
A final note: researching the historical accuracy of the film was a time-c onsuming task. Why isn't there a website devoted to the systematic fact-checking of "fact based" movies and novels? I don't have time to do it, but surely someone has the time and skills to create such a useful site.
How may people come home from a movie like Changeling wondering what parts are true? It could be as big as IMDB or Snopes. If only I didn't have a real job...
(released on DVD August 2008)
2 stars out of 5
First, let me begin by noting that IJPC Director Joe Saltzman and I disagree on the definition of a journalism movie. For Joe and the IJPC, if there is a journalist in the film, it is a journalism movie. For me, the journalist must be a central character and must spend a reasonable portion of the film actually practicing journalism. In short, I prefer journalism movies that are about journalism. I will try to bring up this dispute only once a year, although I may link to it from other reviews.
The protagonist of Quid Pro Quo is about a person with disabilities (PWD) who is a reporter for New York Public Radio (NYPR), a stand-in for National Public Radio. He tells stories on the radio. As a regular NPR listener, I would characterize him as a cross between John Hockenberry (a PWD) and Ira Glass (who tells stories on This American Life), or perhaps, to reach farther back in radio history, to Jean Shepherd on WOR in New York in the 60s and 70s.
This film seems as if it is a two-person play opened up. The vast majority of the scenes feature only Isaac Knott, played by Nick Stahl and Fiona, played by Vera Farmiga (aka Ancient Chinese Lady). Most of the time, they are talking, with occasional interludes of soft-core sex. That's OK for an art film, when the conversation is thought-provoking. I like art films and watch them regularly. But this was not, for me, a thought-provoking film, it was a stomach-churning film. And as far from a mainstream film as it is possible to get.
Isaac receives an e-mail tip that a doctor was offered a quarter-million dollars to cut off someone's perfectly healthy leg. At first, it appears to be a hoax, then it appears it really happened. Ancient Chinese Lady sends him another tip, which leads him to a meeting of wannabees, able-bodied (AB) people who want to be wheelchair bound. You think that is what the film is going to be about. It's a McGuffin. The film is really about Isaac and Fiona. The writer/director, Carlos Brooks, says wannabees really exist. It seems unlikely, but he certainly does not offer any sustained or interesting insight into their psychology. He depicts them, and that's about it.
Isaac actually makes use of the tools of the trade of a radio reporter, for about five minutes. Interestingly, they are not the tools of a radio story teller, which are a studio microphone and a computer on which to write. The script does not suggest he is a radio news reporter, but he uses the tools of such a reporter, a directional microphone with a windscreen and a digital mini recorder. (Real professional digital minirecorders do not have built-in speakers, but I quibble). We also see him sitting in studio wearing headphones (in the trade, we call them cans). The NYPR office is small, spartan office and contains relatively few people crowded together. Based on my experience, this is the reality of most public radio.
The other 77 minutes of the film is two people talking, interspersed with wannabees who want to be paralyzed and in wheelchairs, and about 30 seconds of actual radio work. This is not enough for me to characterize it as a journalism movie, but it does have a journalist protagonist. One whom, I might add, gets involved with a source in a highly unethical way. Real professional journalists should not sleep with their sources and seldom do.
I will give this movie credit for thinking outside the box. As I have noted from time to time at my blog,The vast majority of American movies in the last 20 years have depicted life at the top. If you think back to the films of the 30s through the 50s, they frequently featured "real" people, and made some effort to depict actual working-class and middle-class life. Those classes have disappeared into a haze of architects, doctors, lawyers, bankers and college-educated upper-middle class journalists, not to mention the legions of movie protagonists with no visible means of support who, apparently, never go to work. So, it was refreshing to see working class life depicted. And I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of films I have seen that show a person on a chair, a PWD. The indignities of such a life are limned with precision. So, at least Quid Pro Quo is a breath of fresh air.
This is an art-film character study, in which the profession of the protagonist is an afterthought, a ruse that allows him to roll around and ask questions.