Journalism is dying. Most news today comes from news commentators and kids who are about to go to college are being told to avoid majoring in journalism because there are no jobs. The first step to mind control is information control and as budding journalists are being routed to public relations, or whatever, newsworthy stories will be buried as less and less people will speak truth to power with the information to back it up.
There’s something satisfying about getting to the bottom of things, especially when those things are elusive. When movies go for thrillers, most people think of horror, but real life terrors are so much more frightening. Not just when they have to do with cops, either. Cops aren’t always relatable to the common viewer, as most people in the audience don’t start the day knowing they may go up against a potentially deadly foe as a part of their job description. Celluloid journalists are kind of like movie detectives. Most of the time they wear out their shoe leather taking pictures of cheating husbands, but once in a while they get a potentially lethal case that feels like jewels wrapped under a coating of lead.
Ah, but journalists, that’s day job anyone can go for. It’s better than being stuck in an office all the time. At its core, journalism is a racket and not a particularly well-paying one. Newspaper movies like His Girl Friday and Foreign Correspondent make a lot of racket and make the whole thing sound like fun, especially with all that witty patter. All the President’s Men inspires news enthusiasts by showing the pinnacle of the power of the press. Kill The Messenger shows the nadir of that same power. Wag The Dog shows how that power can be all-so-easily abused.
The art of newswriting is in transition right now. The information age is still new and writers today are saddled with SEO requirements and enslaved to google analytics in a cannibalistic war for hits. This will evolve, but the essence of newsgathering will always remain the same. Investigative reporting, without it Jimmy Breslin would never have learned that mobsters may have been fearless, reckless and indelicate, what with the brains being splattered and the dead fish showing up on the curb, but the pursuit of crime ended at the shoes.
Too many gangsters came to this country from a place where shoes were a luxury and they’d be damned if they’d ruin nice Italian leather with cranial effluvium. I personally theorize that that’s why hitmen used .22s, less splatter. These were high paid guys who wouldn’t get caught dead in a penny loafer.
Two movies recently opened about journalism. In Spotlight, Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor of The Boston Globe‘s investigative team, a guy who wore out his shoe leather chasing leads. Truth, the movie about Dan Rather’s investigation into President W’s military service, didn’t do well in its opening weekend. The critics didn’t get behind it either. It stars Robert Redford as Dan Rather and was based on Mary Mapes’ book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power. When I put up a trailer piece, it was horribly attacked. I have to say, I like Dan Rather and think he got railroaded. I trust him even though I know he got some facts wrong when he first reported the Kennedy assassination.
What is a conspiracy anyway? A group of more than two people who agree to do something and keep it hidden. Rather was as much a victim of conspiracy as Bill Maher, even if it was a conspiracy of casual Friday khaki wearers wanting to get out of a meeting.
13. Kill The Messenger (2014)
I got the idea for this piece while watching Kill the Messenger, the 2014 movie adaptation of Nick Schou’s book that was directed by Michael Cuesta on Peter Landesman’s screenplay. I was abstracting AP news stories when Gary Webb’s pieces were running in the San Jose Mercury News in 1996, and found them fascinating. The articles were about how the CIA was dealing cocaine to pay for the anti-government Contra rebels in Nicaragua.
The movie, which stars Jeremy Renner as Webb, posits that Oliver North might have been behind the urban crack epidemic of the late 80s. It made fiscal sense at the very least. The movie is very suspenseful, even if it does have to speed through the initial investigation. It’s more about the descent of the journalist than the probe. It also stars Andy Garcia, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt and Ray Liotta as the last minute source who still won’t corroborate the story on record.
Webb committed suicide on December 10, 2004. He shot himself twice in the head. That may sound fishy, but Sacramento County Coroner Robert Lyons assured the press that while it’s unusual for gunshot suicides to pull the trigger twice, “it is in fact a distinct possibility.” Kill The Messenger is definitely not a recruitment ad for journalism.
12. Citizen Kane (1941)
Now we know that Citizen Kane is really just a dirty in-joke, but Orson Welles taught us the scope of journalistic power that William Randolph Hearst wielded. Citizen Kane was 365 days in the making. Sure, they lost a million that year. And they’d probably lose a million the next year and if they kept it up, the publishing tycoon could go broke. In forty years. Welles is really too likeable an imp to play a guy so rich and powerful that he probably got away with murder right in front of a boat full of celebrities. Until he isn’t and then he can wreck a soundstage.
Citizen Kane broke new ground in characterizations, content and camera work. The movie focuses on journalists investigating the last utterance of the most powerful publishing magnate of the time. It vies for top movie of all time on many movie lists. Some years it’s on the top, other years it is named number two or three. That may be great for a movie, but it doesn’t bode so well for the newspaper king it’s based on.
11. Sound of My Voice (2011)
This is what happens when you chase a story so far you get lost in it.
Two journalists are investigating a brainwashing religious cult and wind up getting brainwashed. And who can blame them? Brit Marling, who co-wrote the screenplay with director Zal Batmanglij, is magnetic as the charismatic and enigmatic visitor from the future. Marling’s Maggie gets into people’s heads. She strips them of their facades and makes them face themselves.
The journalists here are making a documentary and the film has a documentary feel. The cult meets in the basement of an isolated farmhouse outside of Los Angeles. One of the journalists even learns to shoot as the art-house indie grows more claustrophobic and suspenseful.
10. The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)
Before Mel Gibson made Jesus torture porn and headlining drunken tirades, he made some very serious and worthwhile movies. Gallipoli is one of the most effective films about the futility of war. The Year of Living Dangerously explains the futility of romance during a coup.
Based on the 1978 novel by Christopher Koch, the movie’s make-believe misfit ménage a trois was set against the Communist Party’s very real coup of Indonesia on September 30, 1965. The Year of Living Dangerously was directed by Australian New Wave cinema maestro Peter Weir, who co-wrote the screenplay with Koch and David Williamson.
Mel Gibson plays fictional journalist Guy Hamilton, a foreign correspondent for an Australian radio network who is assigned to Indonesia. Sigourney Weaver plays Jill Bryant, a British Embassy officer who is sheltered from the world right outside the embassy walls.
Linda Hunt gives the breakout performance as photojournalist Billy Kwan. Hunt won the 1983 Best Supporting Actress Oscar for playing the male dwarf who explains the fickle art of photography as “If it’s in focus, it’s pornography, if it’s out of focus, it’s art.” Indonesia banned the movie from being shown until 1999 after the president, former coup-leading Major General Suharto, was forced to resign.
9. Picture Snatcher (1933)
James Cagney has so much fun inventing tabloid journalism it’s infectious. Journalism is a racket and Cagney plays a racketeer who wants an easier way to rake in some bucks. The picture snatcher is Danny Kean, based on Chicago Tribune photographer Tom Howard. The picture he snatched was of Ruth Snyder, the first woman to get the chair in Sing Sing since 1899. Howard snatched that shot for the New York Daily News just as “State Electrician” Robert G. Elliott flicked the switch on January 12, 1928. Snyder and her boyfriend garroted her husband after seven failed murder attempts for the insurance money.
Don’t be a sob sister. Cagney’s Danny gets the job as staff reporter at the Graphic News after he snatches the wedding picture from a fireman, played by G. Pat Collins, who is barricaded in his own burnt-out home with the bodies of his wife and her lover on the floor and a gun in his hand. The city editor Al McLean is played by Ralph Bellamy, equally well known for his roles in The Awful Truth as he is for his turn in Jon Landis’ Eddie Murphy/Dan Ackroyd prince-and-the-pauper movie Trading Places.
To get into the Sing Sing execution, the Graphic News photographer gets past the bulls after stealing another reporter’s invitation and strapping a hidden camera to his ankle. Picture Snatcher was directed by Lloyd Bacon and written by Daniel Ahern, Allen Rivkin, P. J. Wolfson, Ben Markson and William Keighley.
8. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
Based on Hunter S. Thompson’s novel of the same name, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is former Monty Python animator and Brazil director Terry Gilliam’s quick-like-a-bunny trip down the white rabbit hole. Johnny Depp plays journalist Raoul Duke trying to get a story in on the scurrilous doings of Sin City under deadline while being forever sidetracked by Benicio del Toro’s Dr. Gonzo.
Depp went deep into Thompson territory, befriending the writer as he studied him. I’d like to think they did buttons together. I would have insisted. Del Toro brings menace, vulnerability and degeneracy to his hulking Samoan. What is floating in that bathwater? It looks so nasty.
Gilliam captures the psychedelic allure of chemical inspiration by framing every shot as it might have been imagined by long-time Thompson collaborator Ralph Steadman. I can personally attest to the depravity that follows an ether binge. Drugs and journalism is a natural mix, from the bennies old school hacks used to pop to keep them up to speed to the worm in Dr. Gonzo’s mescal.
Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas presents a sort of riptide commentary on the meaning of the Sixties but turns into a wild and hydra-headed screed on Truth, Vengeance, Journalism and the meaning of buffalo meat. Oh and wait until you get a load of those bats.
7. Network (1976)
Can you imagine how pissed off Howard Beale would be today?
Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky thought he was writing a satire, only to see the worst elements of this movie play out on reality TV shows throughout the world. Sidney Lumet is one of the great directors in film. He brings realism to the fantastical and the historic authority to stand head to head with screen legend William Holden. Max Schumacher has to be Holden’s best screen performance, which is saying a lot.
Every performance is masterful, Faye Dunaway is coldly sensual as Diana Christensen, the program manager so hot for a hit show she gives the Ecumenical Liberation Army their own show called “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.” The satire cuts deep as the revolutionaries argue over syndication rights.
Peter Finch plays UBS Evening News anchor Howard Beale. He is given his two-week notice because his ratings have dropped, so he announces that he will commit suicide on camera the next day to illustrate the bullshit of life. Live suicide is great for ratings and the Union Broadcasting System network. Finch posthumously won the Best Actor Oscar, Dunaway pulled in the Best Actress Award. Beatrice Straight won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress and Chayefsky won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar. But it is Ned Beatty, with his rousing tent revival testimonial, who steals the movie.
6. Salvador (1986)
Before he turned his unflinching lens on the My Lai massacre of the Vietnam War in Platoon and the conspiracies of the coup of JFK, Oliver Stone took a long hard look at the Salvadoran Civil War. Stone co-wrote the screenplay with Richard Boyle.
James Woods is one of my favorite actors. I discovered him in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome and rooted for him over Robert De Niro in Once Upon a Time in America. His turn in the film adaptation of Joseph Wambaugh’s The Onion Field turned sociopathology on its head. Woods never takes the easy route, not even on The Simpsons, where he would have taken a bullet for Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. He brings a touch of sleaze to his most civilized roles and this is one of his skankiest. His heart is in the right place, but his hand is inching towards your wallet.
James Belushi gives the best performance of his career in Salvador. While this might not seem that big a deal, I assure you, it is. This poor schlug Doctor Rock goes along to watch the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero thinking he’s going on a pub crawl in Tijuana. Stone really puts a scare in Belushi in the lockup scenes. Michael Murphy is always solid and usually pretty sober, but John Savage’s passionately detached commitment is the heart and soul of this movie.
5. Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty’s masterpiece told the story of journalist John Reed, who chronicled the Russian Revolution from the front lines in his book Ten Days That Shook the World. Reed was on an assignment for The Masses, though his articles were published by The Liberator after The Masses was shut down by the government under the Espionage Act of June 15, 1917.
Communism is just another way to interpret capitalism. Communism rewards labor over management, because they’re the ones doing the work. Capitalism rewards management, which tells workers what to do. Reed probably worked harder than any other member of the party, only to be exploited by the slow pencil pushing managers who worked him to death. Reed is one of two Americans who were buried at the Kremlin Wall Necropolis.
The movie itself is an epic, a love story told through chapped lips. Diane Keaton played Louise Bryant, the American journalist Reed convinced to cover the revolution and share a life. Bryant continued to push the boundaries of journalism after Reed’s death of typhus. She glared at the famine that engulfed Russia after the revolution and then turned her sights to the efficient Benito Mussolini long before he became the ultimate antirevolutionary dictatorial leader of Italy.
Jack Nicholson gives some of his best performances in supporting roles. He was the guy who punched Robert De Niro in the nose as a union organizer in The Last Tycoon. His Eugene O’Neill is one his great performances. He is the emotional center that the film pivots on. While Keaton’s journey as Bryant is the most vast, Nicholson gives his most vulnerable performance in this movie.
Then there’s Paul Sorvino as the biggest bushiest Bolshevik since Boris Badenov. Sorvino is so well-known as the slow moving capo Paulie in Goodfellas that his impassioned performance here is a revelation. Maureen Stapleton is a force of nature.
4. All The President’s Men (1976)
This is the movie that sets the standard for modern journalism flcks.
Directed by Alan J. Pakula off a screenplay by William Goldman, the movie adapted the book All the President’s Men by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two Washington Post journalists who broke Watergate. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play reporters Woodward and Bernstein. They wear out their shoe leather, lose the thread of confirmation code, meet mysterious strangers in dark garages and deep throat President Tricky Dick Nixon. At first, All The President’s Men makes journalism look like a dream job: you live on coffee and can smoke anywhere you want, even elevators, but when you pull down the government, there is always the possibility the ruins might fall on top of you.
All the President’s Men followed Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974) in what is now known as Pakula’s “paranoia trilogy.”
3. Parallax View (1974)
This is what happens to sloppy journalists. They get caught up so much in the story that they wind up on the front pages as the main character in a nationwide assassination conspiracy. The Parallax View explores journalist-as-patsy to such a degree, it’s a wonder anyone does investigative journalism. But really, at the heart of it is what we all want: to chase a story that just might bite us on the ass. A tinge of danger can be an aphrodisiac to a writer and who can show that better than Warren Beatty? Beatty got to play some dream roles, in some ways he got to be a kid who never has to stop playing make believe. More than a lot of actors, he got his hands on parts with so much room for imagination that other actors must envy the shit out of him. From gangsters to lovers to politically committed roustabouts, Beatty must love getting up to go to work.
The suspense in Parallax View creeps up slowly and then comes in fits. After about 20 minutes and a boat explosion, director Alan J. Pakula makes it seem like there’s someone behind every corner, but you don’t know that that unseen force has guiding things until we’re in the dark sniper’s nest. There is no conspiracy at the Parallax Corporation, just twelve people dead.
Hume Cronyn’s editor calls out reporter Joseph Frady for irresponsible journalism, but the idea of having a sociopath fill out a job application for a covert execution corporation is brilliant. Based on the 1970 novel by Loren Singer, The Parallax View may not be the best recruitment tool for journalism, but really, it is. Deep down, this is what we expect.
2. His Girl Friday (1940)
Howard Hawks’ adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page was the greatest yarn in journalism since Livingstone discovered Stanley. Or was it the other way around?
His Girl Friday showed journalists as witty, urbane wiseasses who typed fast and talked even faster. It broke tremendous ground on how dialogue was handled up until that time. In most movies, actors would wait until their onscreen partners finished their lines before jumping in. Hawks practically invented overlapping dialogue and forever changed the pacing of film. It seems fun to be a journalist, unless you want to quit the racket and settle down.
Cary Grant plays newspaper editor Walter Burns, tough with a tender heart that would have been just as comfortable beating larceny. Rosalind Russell plays The Morning Post’s star reporter Hildegard Johnson, who wants to marry a dull suburban insurance salesman. Ralph Bellamy looks just like himself as Bruce Baldwin. Hildy would be able to make a clean break of her boss and ex-husband if he didn’t want her to cover the upcoming execution of convicted murderer Earl Williams (John Qualen) as her last story.
Remade in 1974 with Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon, the reporters in The Front Page are cut-throat, petty and unethical. That doesn’t mean they don’t have a code of honor. Sure, it’s okay to screw another writer out of a scoop or dangle a cushy column job to a tired legman, as long as nobody messes with an exclusive byline or an in-joke. The movie is loaded with in-jokes, besides the Ralph Bellamy bit I referenced above Grant also tells the Mayor “Listen the last man that said that to me was Archie Leach just a week before he cut his throat.” Archie Leach was Grant’s real name.
1. Where The Buffalo Roam (1980)
This is really where it all begins for me. I grew up Hunter S. Thompson’s Gonzo journalism the way some kids read comic books. Thompson’s writings led many people into journalism, sheepish swine that we can be. It looked like the best job. You make your own hours. You make up the stuff you were too high to remember. The only thing you had to contend with was deadlines, and editors like the late, brilliant Bruno Kirby. Kirby is best known as young Clemenza in Godfather 2 and as Billy Crystal’s buddy with the horrible taste in furniture in When Harry Met Sally, but he should also be remembered for his counterculture film work.
The film Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was more about the drugs than the journalism, but Where the Buffalo Roam sits in the middle of the courtrooms, drink and pen in hand. Bill Murray takes on a small tinge of Hunter S. Thompson’s characteristic voice and still perfectly captures the spirit of Gonzo journalism. This is one of Murray’s best early acting performances, along with his portrayal of the spiritual seeker in the adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge. Peter Boyle is transcendent as Carl Lazlo, Esq., Hunter’s alias for the mouthpiece and activist Oscar Zeta Acosta. Boyle keeps a naughty gleam in his eye even at his most outraged.
Acosta was one of God’s own prototypes, he wrote the novels Autobiography of a Brown Buffalo (1972) and The Revolt of the Cockroach People. Too weird to live and too rare to die, he disappeared in 1974 and was, and is, presumed dead.
Art Linson directed the picture, based on Thompson’s October 1977 Rolling Stone obituary for Acosta, “The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat.” Screenwriter John Kaye fleshed it out with bits and pieces of Thompson’s book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, The Great Shark Hunt, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.