May 18, 2015

Top 10 films about journalism

Last year one of the country’s leading journalism educators asked me to compile a top 10 of the best films about journalism. It didn’t run – long story – so here it is. One little update since late 2014: George Clooney’s Hack Attack movie might be a contender in the future, if they can get around the problem of not upsetting Rupert …

Until someone makes a movie out of Dirty Politics (working title: The Rawshark Redemption), this list will have to stand as one possible selection of the 10 best films about journalism. Is it noteworthy that the majority of these dramas are based on fact, and only a couple could be said to be entirely fictional? Yet there are no documentaries in the line-up. Also, every journalism film has a moral to impart, or maybe just conveys a depressing reality about the business. 

All the Presidents Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976). This list is alphabetical but even if it were not, this would probably still be at the top. The 1970s was the heyday of the disenchanted paranoia thriller – Pakula also gave us Klute and The Parallax View – and All the President’s Men is all about what Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) do in the shadows. Nixon is the monster. Journalism gets results.

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000). Seventies debauchery has never looked as squeaky clean as it does in Crowe’s fictionalised account of his life as a cub reporter for Rolling Stone magazine. The band he is tracking is a blend of Led Zeppelin and the Eagles, the groupies have hearts of gold and the drugs aren’t killing anyone yet. But will the kid get his cover story? Actual rock journalism legend Lester Bangs (who later died of an overdose) is impersonated by the brilliant Philip Seymour Hoffman (who later died of an overdose). Journalism can ruin your life.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941). This is partly an epic in-joke at the expense of newspaper mogul William Randolph Hearst, himself a tyrannical and charismatic ink-stained giant from the golden age of newspapers. In this account as well as in real life, he provided the war. Journalism is an egomaniacal pursuit. One egomaniac recognised another.

La Dolce Vita (Federico Fellini, 1960). This classic gave us the paparazzi, both as a word and as an idea. Marcello Mastroianni is the handsome, jaded reporter in Rome as the 1950s give way to the 1960s. His beat is celebrity (Anita Ekberg at the airport and splashing in the fountain) and superstition (the kids with their Madonna sighting). We learn that journalism is a job for cynics,  hedonists and depressives. See also: Antonioni’s The Passenger, which you forget is sort of about journalism until you remember its other title, Professione: Reporter.

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998). The drugs do work. Do people still want to be Hunter S Thompson? Both a drug-addled genius and a libertarian blowhard, Thompson is played by Johnny Depp, who does the voice and the walk as a kind of Gonzo cartoon. Gilliam doesn’t stint on the hallucinations and even manages to get some end-of-the-counterculture poignancy into this long weekend bender. Journalism can ruin your life but never really feels like work. For best results, watch with The Rum Diary (2011), in which a younger, straighter Hunter S Thompson, again played by Depp, is working on a chaotic newspaper in Puerto Rico. It’s like a square prequel.

The Insider (Michael Mann, 1999). Al Pacino should be in more films about journalism. He plays real-life investigative reporter Lowell Bergman in a dramatisation of how 60 Minutes persuaded a whistle-blower to tell all about big tobacco. That whistle-blower is played by Russell Crowe in what is still the best acting of his film career. Like Pakula in the 70s, Mann turns shadow-chasing editorial legwork into the stuff of a gripping paranoid thriller. Journalism gets results and can even change the world.

The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984). An important film for what it told us about the horrors of the Khmer Rouge and so on, but there is also a glamour and seductiveness about its sweat-soaked images of foreign correspondents, played here by Sam Waterston, John Malkovich (almost never better) and Julian Sands. See also: Salvador, The Quiet American and The Year of Living Dangerously. Journalism takes you (dangerous) places.

Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976). One of the great media catchphrases – “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – came out of this hysterical 70s satire of the TV business, which seemed ridiculously prescient simply by imagining the worst. What would happen if a news anchor suddenly flipped out and told the truth? See also: Broadcast News. Journalism? It’s just a branch of entertainment.

Sweet Smell of Success (Alexander McKendrick, 1957). There is a vicious and amoral gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) and there is the shameless lackey and gossip peddler who hangs off him (Tony Curtis). Some stories never get old and there are few depictions of the news machine that are less virtuous than this black comedy. It’s overdone but it also has a horrible exactness. Journalism can be a filthy business.

Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007). Two San Francisco newspaper men become obsessed with finding the Zodiac Killer, long after he stops being a story. One is an alcoholic crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) and the other is an earnest cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal). The film is itself obsessive; Fincher is hung up on detail and relates to their doggedness. Journalism is sometimes about failure.