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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