It's no secret that the Fourth Estate is in a critical state, its future precarious at best. Papers across the country have been downsizing and folding, and those that remain face crucial questions. How does a newspaper remain relevant in an age of instant news feeds and ever-expanding and multiplying sources? How does print media make a case for its own necessity at a time when more and more of our information is found and shared in the cyber-sphere? How can old-fashioned periodicals compete with the ease and access of on-line sites?
While the prospects of print media may look grim, the struggle is far from over. Though some pundits appear to be more than willing to sound the death knell for the newspaper now, others argue that it's a premature call. Too many issues remain: while the quick accessibility of on-line sources can't be denied, the fact is that most of these sites are news aggregates. Begging the question: if you do away with the "real life" news-gatherers, what will be left for these sites to aggregate? Regardless of the form in which the news is eventually delivered, it is still necessary for journalists to do the footwork and investigation required to report the stories. We still need reporters. And local papers still serve a very worthy service for their communities -- Vermont's own Seven Days is a great testament to that.
With the release of Andrew Rossi's revealing look at The New York Times, we thought it would be a good time to take a look at some of the best newspaper movies:
Page One: Inside the New York Times
An excellent, thought-provoking documentary about the legendary, influential paper and the challenges (crises) it faces with the rise of new media. Featuring a great cast of characters - particularly ex-addict turned investigative reporter David Carr - the film captures the struggles the paper must contend with on a daily basis.
Sam Fuller (a newspaper man himself) directed this fiery tale of a start-up paper in New York in the 1880s, and the opposition it faces from the bigger, well-established publications. Gene Evans plays the gruff lead - a man for whom the responsibilities of good reporting are paramount - and the movie, while a bit didactic at times, is full of informative tidbits and insightful details about the old customs and practices of the traditional paper.
All the President's Men
This 1979 classic, featuring Dustin Hoffman as Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford as Bob Woodward, exemplifies journalism at its best. The two intrepid reporters followed the actions and questionable exploits of the Nixon administration during the 1972 presidential campaign, including the infamous Watergate hotel break-in. Their dogged investigation and subsequent stories published in The Washington Post have been largely credited with helping to bring about the resignation of Richard Nixon.
State of Play
The 2009 feature film version of State of Play is a decent thriller that offers some broad commentary on the current issues facing print media. However, it's the original 2003 BBC mini-series that really delivers. The riveting six hour saga (starring Bill Nighy, John Simm, James McAvoy, & Kelly Macdonald) twists and turns through political scandals and cover-ups, while following a group of investigative journalists as they chase the story and root out the truth, all the while facing the financial restrictions and bureaucratic hassles that hamper the modern press.
The Wire - 5th Season
The highly acclaimed HBO series, created by Ed Burns and former journalist David Simon, turned their attention towards the press in the fifth season, which featured a fictionalized version of the Baltimore Sun and addressed concerns such as journalistic ethics and the proper role of the media in society's treatment of crime and punishment.
A second entry for Simon & Burns, this HBO mini-series follows the exploits of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion of the US Marines during their 2003 mission into Iraq. (They were the first military unit to enter the country.) The series is based on the work of Evan Wright, a reporter for Rolling Stone magazine, who was embedded with the battalion, and who remained with them for two months. In addition to being a great series chronicling the intensity of modern warfare, the show also paints an excellent portrait of wartime reporters and the danger and pressures they face.
There are several other great films which focus on the perilous (but necessary) role of the journalist during times of war and conflict, including Michael Winterbottom's Welcome to Sarajevo, Oliver Stone's Salvador, Roger Spottiswoode's Under Fire, and the documentary War Photographer about the fearless James Nachtwey.
Based on the true story of the so-called Zodiac killer who terrorized the residents of San Francisco over the course of several years in the 1970s, David Fincher's film actually focuses on the three newspaper men who would obsessively investigate the crimes in an effort to unmask the identity of the killer.
Ace in the Hole
Exposing an uglier side of journalism, Billy Wilder's acerbic tale follows a less-than-scrupulous reporter (Kirk Douglas) who scoops the story of a miner trapped in a shaft and then must decide whether or not to prolong the situation in order to possibly win the coveted Pulitzer Prize.
Speaking of unscrupulous reporters, this 2003 film depicts the rise and fall of Stephen Glass, wunderkind reporter for the New Republic who was eventually discovered to have embellished or completely fabricated a large number of his stories. Glass joined the ignominious ranks of Jayson Blair, Janet Cooke, Patricia Smith, Jay Forman, and others - journalists who were dismissed from their posts when their lies and exaggerations came to light.
Sweet Smell of Success
A searing portrayal of the opportunistic columnists and desperate publicists of the entertainment world of the 50s. Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis square off in Alexander Mackendrick's revered classic, with a biting script by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman.
Manufacturing Consent: Noam Chomsky and the Media
Ten years in the making, this documentary by Mark Achbar (The Corporation) and Peter Wintonick, examines the life and work of noted linguist and controversial intellectual Noam Chomsky, with special focus on the social critic's deconstruction of the modern media.
Ron Howard's amiable 1994 film features a game cast (including Michael Keaton, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei, Glenn Close, and Jason Robards) who work at a small paper in New York and struggle to compete against the larger publications and the demands of publishing daily.
His Girl Friday
The fastest comedy on record! Cary Grant is a newspaper editor who employs reckless tactics and questionable ethics whether in pursuit of a good scoop or a great romance; Rosalind Russell is the tough reporter who holds her own in the boys' club and against the (renewed) advances of ex-husband Grant. An exhilarating show of verbal jousting and cagey maneuvers drives the momentum, while the 'anything-for-a-story' ethos gets a good ribbing. Based on the stage hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur (both of whom began their careers as newspaper men), which was adapted for the screen before (1931's The Front Page by Lewis Milestone) and after (1974's The Front Page by Billy Wilder and, unfortunately, as 1988's Switching Channels), but never as wildly or as satisfyingly as Howard Hawks' 1941 masterwork.
It Happened One Night
A great many classic Hollywood romantic comedies centered around reporters of one kind of another, and many of them are well worth watching (including Nothing Sacred, Libeled Lady, Woman of the Year, and The Philadelphia Story), but perhaps none of them are as well-regarded as Frank Capra's Oscar-winning early screwball offering featuring Claudette Colbert as a dissatisfied heiress and Clark Gable as the undercover reporter vying for a great story.
Orson Welles' revered film (a regular staple of "Best of" lists of all stripes) is a thinly-veiled portrait of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The story follows the rise to power of a young idealist named Charles Foster Kane who would eventually become the largest publishing tycoon in the country - and in the process become corrupted by the very power and influence he struggled to achieve.
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