Oscar special: Journalists on film

February 19, 2009

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

It’s Oscar time, and I’m again reminded of the debt Hollywood and journalists owe each other. Journalists supply Hollywood with great stories and Hollywood sometimes makes us look cool—or at least worth a couple of hours of time and the price of a ticket.

Put aside the fact that a number of Hollywood movies literally are made from the pages of journalism –“Saturday Night Fever,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Adaptation,” to name only a few, were all based on magazine stories. We journalists are also the very characters that Hollywood screenwriters sometimes love.

In addition to sometimes bringing out our cool factor—although, really, what aspiring reporter could resist Robert Redford’s corduroy suits in “All the President’s Men”? — Hollywood movies can illuminate the kind of ethical, moral and values issues that journalists have to deal with.

This year’s slate of Oscar nominees again includes a movie with journalism as its subject. “Frost/Nixon,” the film adaptation of the Broadway play about British journalist David Frost’s pursuit of the ultimate interview with disgraced former U.S. President Richard Nixon, is nominated for five Oscars.

So here is a completely arbitrary list of my top dozen movies about journalism that have something to say about the way we do our jobs–ethical or unethical, selfish or selfless. Aside from that, about the only thing they have in common is that they all were at least nominated for Oscars. I’ll also acknowledge that most of the films are U.S.-oriented, like the Oscars. So I want to especially encourage feedback and suggestions for films from all parts of the world. (A word of warning: There will be plot spoilers.)

The envelope, please.

12: “Roman Holiday” (1953)—A journalist decides that there are things worth more than getting the story– love and happiness, for example. Gregory Peck plays a struggling American reporter for a celebrity-oriented magazine in Rome assigned to cover a princess (Audrey Hepburn) on a state visit. The princess wants a taste of “real” life and escapes her handlers and falls into the arms of Peck, who sees the liaison as a chance to get an exclusive story and escape his down-at-the-heels lifestyle. Naturally, they fall in love and the princess sees just how much fun the common people can have. But Peck decides the exclusive story isn’t worth ruining his subject’s happiness as the princess reluctantly returns to her duties. Extra points for a bearded Eddie Albert’s portrayal of crazed photographer.

11: “Reds” (1981)–A journalist crosses the line from covering his subject to becoming part of the story. Warren Beatty is radical American journalist John Reed, who already writes from a strong point of view. He becomes more involved in leftist party politics, journeys to Russia to cover the 1917 Bolshevik revolution and becomes a semi-official voice for the cause, all the while engaged in a tempestuous love affair with fellow journalist Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton). Extra points for Jack Nicholson’s lecherous but poetic role as Eugene O’Neill.

10: “The Year of Living Dangerously” (1982)—A journalist uses his relationships with a lover and colleagues to further his career before deciding that love really is more important. Mel Gibson is an Australian radio reporter sent to Indonesia in the 1960s as President Sukarno breaks with the West. Working with a dwarf photographer named Billy Kwan (a stunning Oscar turn by Linda Hunt), his career prospers and he falls in love with a British diplomat (Sigourney Weaver), who may or may not be using him. As he gets wind of a coup, he must decide between love and his career. Love wins.

9: “The Killing Fields” (1984)–A foreign correspondent learns he can’t do his job without his courageous local colleagues and that life and friendship are more important than getting the story. Sam Waterston is New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg, stationed in Cambodia as the Khmer Rouge take over. His colleague, Cambodian journalist Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor) sends his family to the U.S. as the Khmer Rouge move in, but Pran stays behind to work with Schanberg and falls victim to the brutal Khmer Rouge. Schanberg is wracked with guilt and works to ensure that Pran also gets credit for the award-winning journalism. After they were reunited, Pran worked in New York for The Times as a photographer and died last year.

8: “Broadcast News” (1987)—A trio of sad television journalists battle over the authenticity of news and learn that style often trumps substance. William Hurt is a handsome but glib and shallow newsman who’s not above staging shots and faking tears. Albert Brooks is his neurotic, by-the-book rival whose ethics, passion and knowledge are no match for Hurt’s hollow charm. Both men are after the romantic and professional attention of Holly Hunter’s producer, whose journalistic skill and success are equalled only by her private, self-destructive depression. Will the authentic journalist and authentic love win out? Don’t count on it.

7: “Citizen Kane” (1941)—It had to be here, didn’t it? A newspaperman’s youthful idealism turns to power-mad self interest. Orson Welles’ magnificent film about the fictional Charles Foster Kane (now who might that be?) tracks the rise and fall of a journalist who got into the business to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted and dies a lonely, loveless tycoon. A great moment in the idealistic phase, as Kane talks about his creed: “…It is my duty, and I’ll let you in on a little secret, it is also my pleasure—to see to it that decent, hard-working people of this community aren’t robbed blind by a pack of money-mad pirates just because they haven’t anybody to look after their interests.”

6: “Frost/Nixon” (2008)—Journalists and politicians can’t live without each other and sometimes do the right things for the wrong reasons. In a gripping piece of drama and history, television journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) seeks to save his career by landing an exclusive interview with former President Richard Nixon (Frank Langella). Frost wants to get the scoop and make news by forcing the disgraced president to confess. Nixon wants a platform to clear his name -–and the $600,000 fee. The truth wins.

5: “The Insider” (1999)—Corporate self-interest clashes with public-service journalism—and people in the middle get hurt. Al Pacino plays an aggressive television producer who wants to tell the story of whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand’s (Russell Crowe) revelation that the tobacco industry not only knew their product was dangerous, but deliberately tried to increase its addictiveness. When Pacino’s corporate bosses become nervous, Crowe loses his job, his wife and almost everything but his self-respect. Extra points for Christopher Plummer’s complex portrayal of Mike Wallace.

4: “Ace in the Hole” (1951)—A journalist who will do anything—and I mean anything—to get the story and revive a career. Once called one of the most cynical movies ever made, this is certainly one of the most cynical portrayals of a journalist. Kirk Douglas is Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck former big-city journalist who stumbles on a story of a man trapped in a cave in New Mexico. Tatum takes charge and prolongs the rescue effort to milk the story for all the headlines it will take to get him back to the big time. (“Bad news sells best. Cause good news is no news.”) All the while, Tatum is romancing the trapped man’s wife, a blowsy Jan Sterling (“I don’t go to church. Kneeling bags my nylons.”).

3: “Network” (1976)—The line between news and entertainment blurs to invisibility. Released the same year as “All the President’s Men” (below), “Network” portrays journalists in a decidedly less positive way. Longtime network journalist and now ratings-challenged anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) has an on-air breakdown after learning he will be fired and promises to kill himself on the air. His struggling network decides to encourage his implosion after Beale’s antics begin to catch on, billing him as the “Mad Prophet of the Air Waves.” Beale’s famous line is, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more,” but the more telling one is: “ But, man, you’re never going to get any truth from us. We’ll tell you anything you want to hear; we lie like hell.”

2: “All the President’s Men” (1976)—Hard-working journalists put their reputations on the line in pursuit of public good. As earnest in its portrayal of journalists as its Oscar-rival “Network” was cynical, Alan Pakula’s film focuses on journalists as investigating, crusading watchdogs. A search of the script fails to turn up any references to “ethics”, “ethical” or “unethical,” but few films about journalists portray reporters—played memorably by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford—as more dedicated to not just getting the story, but getting it right. And I still get nervous in lonely parking garages.

1: “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005)—A tough choice for No. 1, but for me no film does a better of job of telling the story of journalists who act courageously and responsibly, fighting powerful corporate pressure to take on injustice. Perpetually wreathed in the tobacco smoke that killed him far too young, storied journalist Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) and his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) challenge and eventually triumph over Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy. And extra points for Frank Langella (“Frost/Nixon”) and his nuanced portrayal of CBS chief Bill Paley.

So what do you think? What are your favorite journalism movies? What would be on your list of films journalists should either pay attention to or ignore? And again, I’d especially like to see suggestions for films made outside the U.S. Let the fray begin.

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Comments
28 comments so far

Most films portraying the journalism profession are very one sided, the film is usually told from the journalist’s point of view, he/she is usually the main protagonist and it is his/her moral dilemmas that are central to the plot – most often in an overly romanticised heroism. As a former news journalist myself (employed by the BBC), these are so far removed from the terrible truth it verges on blatant propaganda. I don’t recall a film where the film begins from the worldview of the ordinary people (be they victims of war or simply victims of more ordinary events) and where the journalist is the antagonist, involved in a callous, career-interested cover up, or simply so cynical about the world that he/she takes the side of the forces of repression. Yet some of the reasons which made me leave journalism are precisely found in these realities, things that the Glasgow University Media Group tries in its limited way to challenge – the lack of substance in real public issue stories, language that obscures the truths rather than draws sharply on them (e.g. straightforward truths such as who is being killed and who is doing the killing in the many ethnic-cleansing wars around the globe). An old friend of mine, working as a stringer for Reuters, did not report on a mass grave found in Guatemala deliberately because she said a) she knew Reuters would not be interested in publishing a story on that and she wanted to get ahead in her career (she deserved it, she said) and b) because of her own imperious cynicism and judgmentalism about the resistance movement’s failure to live up to her ideas of what she felt they should look and sound like – she didn’t care about the people anymore. In fact that view, when you dig just below the surface, is far more common than the heroic journalist – but I can’t recall ever seeing it in films…or am I wrong??

Posted by Kothai | Report as abusive

Hello,

I think, also, of the film Live From Bagdad with James Waterston. Of what think you of this film?

“The Gulf War, 1991. No story is worth dying for – but this was the story of a lifetime.
Plot:A group of CNN reporters wrestle with journalistic ethics and the life-and-death perils of reporting during the Gulf War”

Posted by bellier | Report as abusive

Even Superman is a journalist

Posted by Inese | Report as abusive

Under Fire – Nicaragua and the Sandinista revolution. Great cast, especially the villains, and a nice journalistic dilemma – fake a picture and give the revolution a helping hand, or refuse and let the bad guys (in this case America and Somoza) win.

Posted by Barney | Report as abusive

To Kothai’s point about his friend’s reluctance to report on the finding in Guatemala, I do hope she spoke to her editor before self-censoring. Reuters is not in the business of NOT reporting news. I do agree that cynicism is something journalists need to fight. We can certainly be skeptical without being cynical.

Inese makes an excellent point on Superman, very much a journeyman journalist when he’s not protecting Gotham City. Both newspapers and phone booths are getting harder to find these days.

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

I believe you forgot “Under Fire”, with Nick Nolte as a photo journalist caught in the web of guerrilla warfare in Central America and “Salvador”, also dealing with political violence in that Central American country.

Posted by Richard | Report as abusive

I may add “A mighty heart”,with Angelina Jolie about the killing of the Wall Street Journal reporter, and “The Boys of Brazil”, with Gregory Peck and Lawrence Olivier, as Nazi criminal doctor, Mengele, and Nazi Hunter Simon Wiesenthal. Although is not a movie about journalism, the Reuters Vienna bureau appears in the movie.

Posted by Ricardo | Report as abusive

And let’s not forget Alfred Hitchcock’s classic “Foreign Correspondent,” about an American correspondent in wartime London uncovering spies.

Posted by Lorenzo | Report as abusive

Lovely list there, Dean.
You have already included most of my favorite films, but I am going to try to come up with a few names that include films in languages other than English.
So here goes:

Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita – The movie spawned the word ‘paparazzi’, and serves as a criticism of what that word represents. But more than anything else, it’s a great film. Period.

Almost Famous – A seasoned reporter offers these tips to a fledgling music journalist: “You cannot become friends with the rock stars.” “Be honest, and unmerciful.” Lots more good advice in the movie.

Cidade de Deus – A great Brazilian film in which a photo journalist is very much part of the violence he seeks to record.

The Hunting Party – Smug entertainment or biting satire? Watch it and decide for yourself. A group of journalists decide to capture a Bosnian Serb, a character who closely resembles Radovan Karadžić.

His Girl Friday – An all-time classic. Nothing much to do with journalism as it is today, but an enjoyable watch nevertheless.

The films of Jean-Luc Godard (Weekend, Contempt, Breathless, Pierrot Goes Wild and Alphaville, a Strange Adventure of Lemmy Caution, to name just a few) and Francois Truffaut (The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, The Wild Child, and many more) – The two great directors were film journalists before they started making films as a form of reporting on films they liked, or disliked. Brilliant stuff.

Goodfellas – Based on journalist Nicholas Pileggi’s book, Wiseguy. You gotta watch it.

Chicago – Tabloid journalism at its best?

Capote – What happens when you fall in love with your subject, and he happens to be a murderer? Spell-binding performance by Philip Seymour Hoffman as the conflicted, and brilliant, Truman Capote.

Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy – Ha Ha Ha

There are several other films such as On The Waterfront and Costa-Gavras’ Z that are based on articles/books written by journalists. But can’t think of any more movies revolving around journalism or journalists at the moment. Will add a comment later if something comes mind.

P.S. Dean, Superman’s area of operation is called Metropolis. Batman looks after Gotham. Anyway, the best, or most popular, superheroes are closely connected to journalism.
Spider-man/Peter Parker works as a photo journalist.
Clark Kent is a journalist. Batman’s love interest Vicki Vale is a journalist. The leading lady of the Superman comics, Lois Lane, is a journalist.
Even that great comic-book hero from Belgium, Tintin, is a journalist.
And we love the comics not because of the superheroes, but because of their alter-egos. And with the alter-egos so closely connected to journalism, does that say something about journalists? ;)

Posted by Pratish Narayanan | Report as abusive

How could I forget?

Wong Kar-wai’s In The Mood For Love and sort-of sequel 2046 – You’ll love Christopher Doyle’s lush cinematography and the Chinese director’s penchant for the surreal in these two loosely connected films, in the which the protagonist is a journalist.

Posted by Pratish Narayanan | Report as abusive

Thanks to Pratish for the correction on Superman’s area of operations. Who knows how many secret superheroes are quietly working in our profession? And I have tried to take the advice in “Almost Famous” to heart.

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

Your list is indeed biased. For a less flattering look at journalism, how about “The sweet smell of success” where a brilliant Burt Lancaster plays the role of corrupt columnist.

Posted by El Cid | Report as abusive

Great addition from El Cid. “The Sweet Smell of Success” is not only a brilliant look at a corrupt columnist, but is one of the great movies about New York. Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker has a great line: “I love this dirty town.”

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

Here’s another – David Fincher’s Zodiac. Jake Gyllenhaal plays former San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, who becomes obsessed with the ‘Zodiac’ serial killings.
Robert Downey Jr. plays the newspaper’s crime reporter who isn’t half as interested as Graysmith in the case.

Posted by Pratish Narayanan | Report as abusive

To El Cid, what do you mean by “Your list is indeed biased”? I mean, there’s Ace in the Hole, which features lines such as “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog”, and at No. 3, there’s Network, in which the ratings potential of a news show brings Faye Dunaway’s ‘news producer’ character to orgasm. Enough said.

Posted by Pratish Narayanan | Report as abusive

As a Canadian, I’ll offer up a couple of great British movies about journalists, one of which is a less than flattering portrayal. My favourite of the two is Defence of the Realm, where e Gabriele Byrne plays a journalist investigating the suspicious crash of a nuclear-armed plane at a U.S. Air Force base in the U.K. The other is Pluoughman’s Lunch, with Jonathan Pryce as a creepily ambitious reporter in Thatcherite Britain
Personally, I think journalists suffer at the hands of Hollywood as much as they prosper. Think of all the movies featuring sleazy TV reporters who care only about getting the story. Like the guy in the original Die Hard movie.

Posted by Tom | Report as abusive

Dear Dean,

For me, there is no competition for #1, #2 and #3:

1.”Profession: Reporter” (USA title “The Passenger”, by Michelangelo Antonioni (1975).
2. “Blowup”, by Michelangelo Antonioni (1966).
3. “Prishvin’s Paper Eyes”, by Valeri Ogorodnikov (Russia, 1989).

Now we can have a debate. I suggest

4. Citizen Kane, by Orson Welles.
5. Good Night and Good Luck, by George Clooney.
6, Reds, by Warren Beatty (if we cut it a few minutes before the end — no carnival in Asia, which is as phony and Hollywoodish as the ending of “The Schindler’s List.”)

Best,
Alexander Soifer
asoifer@uccs.edu

How about a) “Resurrecting the Champ” starring Samuel L. Jackson and Josh Harnett?

It was a touching story of an up-and-coming sportswriter and a down, but not quite out, boxer whose lives intersect and are changed forever. More than anything else, it works as a simple reminder to journos to get the facts right.

b)”One Fine Day” starring Michelle Pfeiffer and George Clooney. Although it’s all about one fine day in the lives of two single parents, Clooney’s character is a journalist and his rival columnist has “Frankly Speaking,” a title which an Indian English news channel uses for its flagship interviews.

Posted by Madhu | Report as abusive

There’s also Robert Redford’s “Lions for lambs” in which Meryl Streep dons the journalistic hat in a role which, I presume, would’ve resonated with many in DC as a senator (Tom Cruise), who’s a key military adviser to the President, tries to steer Streep’s character into “selling” a new plan of attack in Afghanistan.

Posted by Madhu | Report as abusive

Excellent additions, Alexander.

But why should the list be about films that only deal with journalism? Isn’t there space for films that are acts of journalism themselves even though they may not feature characters who are journalists?

I have to say — with a little help from Abraham Lincoln — that if Errol Morris’ Gates of Heaven, Marcel Ophüls’ The Sorrow and the Pity and Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World, just to name a few, is not journalism, nothing is journalism.

Posted by Pratish Narayanan | Report as abusive

Also worth a mention is Joel Schumacher’s “Veronica Guerin” starring Cate Blanchett as the Irish reporter who paid the ultimate price for her reporting on Ireland’s burgeoning drugs trade. The film examines whether Guerin was brave or simply reckless in her pursuit of the inside story of the violent gangs that controlled the trade.

Posted by Julian Rake | Report as abusive

Absence of Malice

Posted by arky | Report as abusive

You should follow this up with a list of the WORST journalism movies. I nominate the Jack Webb abomination called -30-.
http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0052526/

Posted by Robert Basler | Report as abusive

But anyway, as long as you’re spotlighting the best, don’t forget the great “His Girl Friday.”

Posted by Robert Basler | Report as abusive

Ah, yes. -30-. I remember first learning of “double trucks” and Bodoni type faces when, if I recall correctly, Jack Webb orders up a page with a picture of a storm drain with words to the effect of: “I want a double truck with a picture of the drain and a 48 point Bodoni headline, ‘Hey, Kids, Stay Away From This.” It was certainly public service.

Posted by Dean Wright | Report as abusive

As an ethics guru, I am surprised you did not mention “Absence of Malice” http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0081974/ which looks very closely at the impact of reporting on the lives of those being reported on.

I also recall liking that a small ’70s film called “Between the Lines” which was about a small underground newspaper being taken over by big business.

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075744/

Posted by Jeremy Gaunt | Report as abusive

“Shattered Glass” is one of my favorites. I love to watch the lie(s) unfold as the movie progresses. It’s 94 minutes long–a really good one to watch if you’re short on time.

Posted by jlew2045 | Report as abusive

Please accept some random thoughts upon stumbling across this blog posting:

Journalists apply their professionalism (doubtlessly to all degrees of candour c.f. Stephen Glass) to report facts to us through reporting media channels. With similar divergence to keeping true to the facts, the big screen has historically adapted a plethora of media related / journalism stories to challenge box office hits; nothing new.

What is interesting, however, is the contrary; when movies create real facts thereby feeding journalism. Indeed, many fictional stories are predecessors to subsequent real life events, bringing us to question whether the story inspired actionable blueprints and/or to marvel the author’s prophetic capabilities.

The abovementioned movie – Ace in the Hole – holds remarkable similarities to what has, is, and will transpire with the trapped Chilean miners.

Many will see cynicism in the similarities and try to pass judgement on the credibility of the operation. Others will refute its relevance to maintain the dignity of this human disaster and authenticity of this timely and successful rescue story. Despite differing opinions, Ace in the Hole provides an interesting ‘conversation piece’ about how a piece of 1950s American fiction resembles so closely to the current state of affairs in Chile 60 years later.

Journalism is constantly faced with ethical concerns of representing the truth. The question of whether journalism reports the truth or whether it creates the truth can be blatantly clear-cut but also extremely complex. This fine line comes face-to-face with the challenges of our era where facts are labelled ‘true’ as long as enough people accept them as such.

This debate however, should not impede journalism nor curtail the movie industry. Indeed, both nourish a much sought-after psycho-sociological need in our ever alienating society: ‘to confirm the life of others’; nothing new. Hence a blog entry and not a Pulitzer prize!

stsalicoglou gmail com

Posted by symeon | Report as abusive
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