No one enters the field of journalism expecting to make a fortune. Like many artistic endeavors, it's a calling — and the craft of reporting is absolutely an art. Actors have to learn how to listen, directors have to understand perspective and musicians have to nail down a hook. Reporters have to excel in all of these areas. And so on the 20th anniversary of perhaps the greatest film about journalism ever made, Michael Mann's "The Insider," let's take a stroll through the past and celebrate the best films about an underappreciated yet vital profession.
“Hiya, Hildy!” Howard Hawks and screenwriter Charles Lederer reworked Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s “The Front Page” in 1940 so that the dueling newsmen were now bantering ex-spouses. The result is not only one of the funniest films ever made but also a more accurate depiction of newsroom relationships (it’s a notoriously incestuous workplace), and a celebration of dogged, principled reporting (which sometimes requires practitioners to get perilously close to crossing the line).
Director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman turned the relentless, nuts-and-bolts process of reporting a major story into one of the most suspenseful and entertaining movies of the 1970s. Pakula brings the paranoid style he honed in “Klute” and “The Parallax View” to the Beltway; he transforms the gaudy, glad-handing seat of our national government into an ominous landscape of shadows and lurking evil. He makes you understand that Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were risking their lives without resorting to manufactured incident. A simple knock on a potential source’s door feels fraught with danger.
“Everybody in this room is smart, and everybody was just doing their job. And Teresa Perrone is dead. Who do I see about that?” The title of Sydney Pollack’s cracking journalism drama refers to the legal definition of proof against libel, and its in-the-weeds depiction of faulty reporting would never see the light of a multiplex projector today. Sally Field plays a newspaper reporter whose ambition causes her to get a liquor wholesaler (Paul Newman) in hot water for a murder he didn’t commit. When her reckless reporting causes a friend of Newman’s to commit suicide, it becomes the flipside to “All the President’s Men." What if all of your meticulous reporting is being manipulated by your sources? The entire political desk at The New York Times would do well to rewatch this one.
A-list screenwriter David Koepp (“Jurassic Park," “Carlito’s Way," “Mission: Impossible”) teamed with his journalist brother, Stephen, for this hugely entertaining ode to old-fashioned, pound-the-pavement, shoe-leather reporting. Michael Keaton is having the time of his life as the editor of a New York City tabloid, who, on the verge of taking a job with a thinly veiled version of The New York Times, gets dragged into a story that could save the lives of two wrongly accused African-American teenagers. Director Ron Howard clears the bases on this one. He’s never made a better film.
Liz Hannah got the ball rolling on this one with her spec script about The Washington Post’s pivotal decision to publish the classified “Pentagon Papers” in 1971. Steven Spielberg, sensing the opportunity to make a newsroom drama, hopped on and shot the living hell out of it. It’s a vitally important movie in that it demonstrates how a newspaper’s ownership tends to be risk-averse, wealthy to the point of aloofness and rarely in step or agreement with its employees. Ambition and caution intermingle, but, at the end of the day, in this case, the right decision gets made.
James L. Brooks’ newsroom dramedy was considered scathing in its day, but, 31 years later, it plays like nostalgia. The future of television news is represented by William Hurt’s empty suit of an anchor, while Albert Brooks’ Aaron Altman plays the part of the aggrieved, hyper-literate reporter who can’t come to grips with the notion that optics and delivery matter more than substance. Caught in between these polar opposites is Holly Hunter’s producer, who’s seduced by Hurt’s telegenic qualities but sympathetic to Brooks’s idealism. The center can’t hold, and, in time, the news will be the equivalent of a domino show.
Dan Gilroy’s pitch-black thriller stars Jake Gyllenhaal as a stringer who leaps way over the line in search of newsworthy footage he can sell to a Los Angeles news affiliate. This is the grimiest side of the reporting business; if you’ve ever worked in television news, you know stringers occasionally have an animalistic, utterly amoral bloodlust. Gilroy takes this to a disturbing extreme, but it’s depressingly plausible.
A terrific work from Henry Hathaway’s film noir period stars Jimmy Stewart as a Chicago newspaper reporter who digs into the story of a man (Richard Conte) who might’ve been wrongly convicted of murdering a policeman at a speakeasy. It’s an engrossing story that accurately illustrates the lengths to which those in power will go to cover up a mistake. It’s also an invigorating showcase for Lee J. Cobb, who was born to play a no-nonsense newspaper editor. The man who originated the role of Willy Loman on Broadway could gnaw on some scenery.
Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver set fire to the screen in Peter Weir’s adaptation of Christopher Koch’s novel about foreign correspondents covering the overthrow of Indonesian president Sukarno. The heart of the film is Gibson’s relationship with his photographer, Billy Kwan, who was played by Linda Hunt. Weir is less interested in the job of a reporter than he is in conjuring a hothouse atmosphere of political unrest and human sensuality, but he still succeeds at dramatizing the type of passion and fearlessness that leads people to risk their lives in pursuit of the truth.
The 2016 Best Picture winner about The Boston Globe’s investigative unit that broke open a staggering sexual abuse scandal in the city’s all-powerful Catholic Church is, like “All the President’s Men," a bracingly effective thriller and a paean to the sacrifices made by tireless journalists. One of the truest scenes in the film finds Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) turning up at ace reporter Michael Rezendes’ (Mark Ruffalo) dump of an apartment with leftover pizza. It’s like someone just ordered him a perfect cut of filet mignon. But he doesn’t take the time to savor it. He keeps rattling on about what he’s looking into. It’s fuel.
It's the most cynical film Billy Wilder ever made, which means it’s also his best. Kirk Douglas plays a scuzzy reporter who lucks into the story of a man trapped in a mine. If you want to understand today’s media landscape, start here. Douglas’s career-driven journo runs the show; he can craft and control the narrative, and no one’s the wiser. It’s a perfect, prescient microcosm for corporate news, which contorts its reporting to serve the ratings gods. The truth has nothing to do with it. The truth is what we say it is.
Steven Soderbergh says George Clooney’s second feature as a director is a “perfect movie," and in terms of capturing a moment when principled reporting dragged the country back from the precipice, he’s not wrong. The son of a newsman, Clooney venerates Edward R. Murrow, and, in a stroke of genius, lets David Strathairn’s portrayal of the legendary reporter spar with the real Joseph McCarthy in his dramatization of the interview that tightened the noose around the deranged senator’s neck. It’s a galvanizing film, but it plays like a tragedy today. Murrow was right about the corporatizing of the news media, and that toothpaste’s never getting back in the tube.
“When the president does it, that means it’s not illegal.” There was a “Rocky”-esque quality to Peter Morgan’s play about a lightweight Australian talk show host wandering into a heavyweight interview bout with wily ex-President Nixon, and, ever the crowd pleaser, Ron Howard brings this out in his big-screen adaptation that stresses the importance of interview preparation but, more than that, shows what a skilled interlocutor can do if not restrained by the fear of losing access. Frost had little to lose here, but his sense of personal pride led him to get Nixon to condemn himself on national television.
Great journalists love a deep rabbit hole, but what if that rabbit hole has no end? If you’re San Francisco Chronicle reporter Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), you keep burrowing until you’re an emphysemic mess. If you’re boy scout Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith, you stick with the scent and write a couple of bestselling true crime novels based on your findings — none of which conclusively solve the mystery. The Zodiac Killer is the Great White Whale of serial killers; short of a family member stepping forward or a Hail Mary DNA test, he’ll never be identified. But it’s a magnificent obsession — the kind that invigorates and ruins truth-seekers –— which makes David Fincher’s film the ultimate journalistic cautionary tale.
Behind every grandstanding television journalist, there’s a bulldog of a producer doing the dirty work to get him the story. Michael Mann’s “The Insider” is a masterful account of what it takes to hook a big story and, most importantly, how hard you have to fight when you’ve reeled in the big one. The battle to protect and serve tobacco-industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) while being undermined by the corporation that controls the flow of the news is as timely today as it was 20 years ago. It’s a classic Mann drama about professionalism, expertise and integrity; Wigand and “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino) are navigating shark-infested waters, and they’ll never be able to live with themselves if they set a foot wrong. Ultimately, Bergman has no choice but to resign from “60 Minutes." That should’ve been the torpedo into the hull of that listing institution.
If you’re an adult who understands how to watch a movie, you get that Pȧddy Chayefsky’s satire is not about grand old men raging against the dying of the light nor is it a misogynistic hit piece on ambitious female producers. It’s a full-scale takedown of the entire industry; an unabashedly indignant broadside that regards these media professionals — on the rise or on their way out — as pathetic, self-mythologizing ciphers. The only truth-teller in the film is Beatrice Straight, who cuts through William Holden’s woe-is-me, late-life crisis with scalpel-like precision. But these are the people who serve “the primal forces of nature." Be not amused.
Lester Bangs' (Philip Seymour Hoffman) “They are not your friends” speech to young William Miller (Patrick Fugit) should be mandatory viewing in journalism schools across the country. There are exceptions to the rule, but the reporter-talent relationship is by its nature transactional. They want something, you want something, and occasionally both sides are satiated. Perhaps you get a drink later. Maybe you go to movies/concerts together. But sooner or later, they make a movie/record an album and you have to tell them what you think. If you’re looking to crack into the entertainment industry, write scripts, make short films or record demos, don’t be a journalist.
The tight-knit relationship between foreign correspondent Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston) and Cambodian native Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor) forms the basis of Roland Joffé’s powerful account of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power. As a film about journalism, it underscores a reporter’s responsibility to his source; Schanberg could’ve left Cambodia behind once he returned to the States, but he fought tirelessly to get Dith out of the country. But this is not a white savior film in the least. Whereas “Cry Freedom” inexplicably focuses on the Good White Man’s escape from South Africa, Joffé’s film spends most of its final act with Pran, and it is brutal.
We’re still waiting on a biopic of Robert Capa, but if you want to understand the life and temperament of a photojournalist, you can’t do better than Oliver Stone’s “Salvador." While Stone’s fury about the United States’ criminal undermining of El Salvador’s duly elected government gradually comes to the fore, the film is at its best as it demonstrates the capriciousness of a freelance journalist. When work dries up for James Woods’ character, he hops in a car with his drinking buddy (Jim Belushi) and buries the needle south to Central America.
Speaking of transactional relationships, there wouldn’t be much in the way of entertainment journalism without publicists. Generally these interactions are above board and fairly innocuous, but when you’re dealing with tabloid journalists, it can get pretty nasty. How nasty? Watch Alexander Mackendrick’s “Sweet Smell of Success," in which top-flight screenwriters Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman kick over a rock to reveal a powerful gossip columnist (Burt Lancaster) wielding his influence to kibosh a budding romance between his sister and an up-and-coming jazz musician. He gets a hard-up publicist (Tony Curtis), who’ll do anything to get a mention in his nationally syndicated column, to do his bidding.
Prior to “All the President’s Men," Alan J. Pakula churned out this nasty number about a newspaper reporter (Warren Beatty) who’s dragged into a conspiracy theory centering on the murder of a presidential candidate. This is both a nightmare and a romanticizing of the craft. On one hand, you’d hate to be the last sane man on the planet trying to expose a multi-tentacled effort to undermine the government. On the other, what a get if you survive! (Spoiler… eh, just watch the movie.)
James Bridges’ “The China Syndrome” is one of the eeriest instances of art anticipating reality. This thinking-man’s disaster film revolves around security concerns at a Southern California nuclear power plant and a conscience-stricken employee’s attempts to make them public before it’s too late. Jane Fonda’s the reporter, a beardy Michael Douglas is her cameraman and Jack Lemmon is the whistleblower, so this is Hollywood in the extreme. But as we barrel forward into a future where the press is instinctively distrusted by a not-insignificant segment of the public, it makes you wonder if this kind of reporting would be trusted today.
The ZAZ team nailed today’s absurd both-sides reporting in one 10-second segment. “I say… let ‘em crash.”
“I think it would be fun to run a newspaper.” Give Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) a little credit: At least he finishes and prints the scathing review of his wife’s ill-fated, opera-singing career that Jedediah Leland (Joseph Cotton) was too drunk to finish. Rupert Murdoch would never.
Warren Beatty’s powerful 195-minute film about Jack Reed’s coverage of the October Revolution gets a journalistic charge from the filmmaker’s interviews with the writer’s still-living contemporaries. Beatty’s passion for the subject matter is undeniable, and his devotion to painting as accurate a picture of the era as possible is an effort Reed would’ve appreciated. It’s a beautiful work that has aged remarkably well.
Jeremy Smith is a freelance entertainment writer and the author of "George Clooney: Anatomy of an Actor". His second book, "When It Was Cool", is due out in 2021.