Hold the Front Page!
What’s black and white and folding soon? As a journalist, I have to say it doesn’t strike me as very funny, but newspapers are in big trouble everywhere faced with the brave new world wide web. The situation is particularly critical in the US, where the industry is structured very differently to our own, and where many cities are in danger of losing their only newspaper.
The Los Angeles Times has slashed back to bare bones staffing levels, and is taking advertorials on the front page. Even the venerable New York Times is in real danger of bankruptcy. And despite the fourth estate’s important role as a watchdog holding our politicians to account, government bail-out is not on the cards.
All of this is sad for the likes of me, and I’d venture to say for the rest of us too. But it’s also decidedly bad news for Hollywood.
The cynical but determined investigative reporter is a popular figure for writers and actors alike. Like a detective, he’s a truth seeker, someone who is there or thereabouts in the aftermath of trouble, and who can make stories move forward under his own agency. Throw in the banter of the newsroom and the built-in suspense of the deadline and you have yourself the bare bones of a good script – not to mention perfect cover for Superman and Spider-Man.
It doesn’t hurt that many of Hollywood’s best screenwriters put in serious keyboard time at a daily – from Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder, Joseph L Mankiewicz, Sam Fuller and Richard Brooks, to today’s David Simon, Cameron Crowe, Paul Attanasio, Nora Ephron, Joe Eszterhas, William Monahan et al. I’ll bet quite a few of the latter went into journalism in the first place because of the movies written by the first crowd: Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as divorced editor and star reporter in His Girl Friday, maybe, or
Clark Gable as the hard-boiled newshound in It Happened One Night, or even Orson Welles’ great declaration of principles as he puts the Mercury back on track in Citizen Kane.
There may not be enough newspaper films to qualify as a fully-fledged genre, but still there is a long and distinguished tradition of movies about the press – and Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play is likely to be one of the last. At any rate, it certainly seems to think so. The relationship between crusading reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) and his cynical editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren) is permeated with references to the dire finances of the paper, the new corporate owners, and the tension between old fashioned investigative journalism and new-fangled blog-avration. All of which reflects how things have moved on from 2003, when the BBC series first aired.
State of Play doesn’t exactly shy away from the clichés associated with journalism movies, but then again, nor do real life journalists – many of whom really do drink too much; bitch and moan obsessively about the shortsightedness of their editors and managers; and would sell their siblings for a front page scoop.
My own favourite journo movies are, I’ll be the first to confess, a little arcane. I love Sam Fuller’s lunatic 1963 picture Shock Corridor, in which a journalist intent on winning the Pulitzer goes undercover in a mental asylum and begins to crack up (the attack of the nymphos is especially memorable). Related to that, Fritz Lang’s 1956 noir thriller Beyond a Reasonable Doubt features a reporter who plans to discredit capital punishment the hard way, by implicating himself in a murder and getting convicted to Death Row. Needless to say his only confidant, his editor, is killed in an accident at a most inconvenient moment. I like to think the message of these movies is do your job, but don’t put yourself into the story. That way madness lies.
I’m partial to foreign correspondent movies too: Under Fire, The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously and Salvador. None of which would persuade me to volunteer to work in a war zone, although I did once go on location for Welcome to Sarajevo, still a shattered city just a few months after the peace accord.
As far as critics go, you have to think about Charles Foster Kane, again, finishing the hatchet job review started and abandoned by his best friend after suffering through the operatic debut of Kane’s wife Susan. And of course there’s the inimitable and insufferable snob Waldo Lydecker (Charles Webb) in the classic suspense film, Laura. See also: George Sanders toying with Marilyn Monroe’s starlet in All About Eve (as if!). g
I wasn’t particularly impressed with the more recent films-a-clef, The Devil Wears Prada (though Streep did a grand job as Anna Wintour) or How to Lose Friends and Alienate People, but The Paper did a good job and only slightly exaggerated the hysteria of press time.
Resurrecting the Champ and Shattered Glass should be mandatory viewing at journalism schools (assuming that they still have journalism courses now there are no journalism jobs?), along with such vintage cautionary tales as The Sweet Smell of Success and Ace in the Hole. As a counterweight to all that cynicism, you can’t ignore All the President’s Men, a superb tribute to Woodward and Bernstein, the men who cracked Watergate. This is one of the few movies that really conveys the legwork and resilience that goes into great investigative reporting.
But for me, I think there’s probably a new contender for the title of best ever newspaper movie – and I don’t mean Marley and Me. David Fincher’s Zodiac is a brilliant film about processing information, the obsessive pursuit of the truth, and the limits of knowledge. The scenes in the newspaper office absolutely spot on, and Robert Downey Jr’s portrait of a boozy but committed reporter is startlingly vivid and unflattering.
We’ll soon be seeing Downey essaying another reporter in The Soloist. After that, who knows? Maybe the bloggers will invade the multiplex.
State of Play is out in cinemas now