Journalism films are all over the place lately, as are documentaries about journalists. It seems like if a film can include a typewriter, somebody smoking indoors and a sense of “taking on The Man,” it’s on a screen these days. Seth Meyers did a fantastic send up of this on his late-night show:
In the 1970s, “All The President’s Men” became the “must-watch movie” for journalism students. When I was in college, we gravitated to “The Paper,” as we all seemed to know random guys like Randy Quaid’s character who bordered on insane. (One of my newsroom friends started calling me “Hackett” after Michael Keaton’s Coke-guzzling, workaholic character.) Now? It could be one of a dozen or more fictional, documentary or “based on a true story” films, so I dug back through IMDB and put out the question to the Hivemind on what was “required” watching for budding journalists.
Below are my “Top Five” films in no particular order with some rationale behind my picks. I tended to consider three things in each pick I made:
- Did I watch it more than once because I liked something about it?
- Does it give viewers something important in it, regardless of the genre or format?
- Do I think students would actually watch this if they weren’t forced to and actually enjoy it?
Those considerations knocked out a couple films for me that others picked up on. I’m also quite certain it will have people screaming at me that I’m wrong.
In any case, here we go:
1) Judging Jewell (2014, ESPN: 30 for 30) – At shade under 22 minutes, this story packs a lot of lessons into a short space. In 1996, a bomb shattered the peace of the Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, killing 2 people and injuring more than 100 others. This could have been much worse had it not been for the heroic actions of Richard Jewell, a security guard who was working at the Games for AT&T. Jewell spotted the package and began moving people away from that area before the bomb detonated.
Jewell was originally considered a hero, but the media turned on him when public sentiment held that Jewell was likely the bomber. What followed was an 88-day “trial by media” that demonstrates what can happen when the race to get the story becomes all-consuming. (My favorite lesson comes from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which ran a line about how Jewell “fits the profile of the lone bomber,” and why attribution matters so much in news writing.) Jewell was eventually exonerated, as terrorist Eric Robert Rudolph was captured and confessed to the bombing. However, Jewell never really recovered. This is a sad story and yet a good cautionary tale for journalists.
2) Spotlight (2015) – Critics have compared this film to the classic “All The President’s Men,” in that it shows how reporting can bring down a powerful institution. It also has similarities in the ways in which the journalists had to engage in real “shoe leather” reporting to make this happen. The critical nature of sources, fact checking, working around problems and other things journalists pride themselves on are on full display here. One of the more interesting things is the early resistance from within the paper when it comes to “going after” the church. Although, like most “based on a true story” movies, we know how it will end, the tension that comes from the fear of being wrong makes this both a tale of aspiration and one of caution.
3) Shattered Glass (2003) – In between his stints as a young Anakin Skywalker, Hayden Christensen portrayed another character drawn to the dark side. Stephen Glass was a young, well-liked journalist at The New Republic when he engaged in a series of fraudulent behaviors that shook the magazine to its core in the late 1990s. Glass started by faking a few quotes here and there before eventually writing pure fiction and passing it off as fact. The epilogue of the film notes that 27 of the 41 pieces he published during his time at the magazine were partially or completely made up, not to mention fabrications he freelanced to a number of other publications.
Some aspects of the film, which is now 15 years old and based on an incident that happened two decades ago, don’t age well for younger viewers. The idea of having to use “every search engine on the web” to get information seems quaint, as does the discussion of the fear associated with an “internet publication going after a giant.” That said, the lessons are fantastic.
At some point in life, almost everyone has wanted to be “the cool kid.” Glass fell into that trap, as you can see in the “60 Minutes” interview below. He loved the attention and would do anything to get it, including wandering down a path of self-destruction.
I would also wager, most people also have found themselves in a jam at some point and thought, “If I just cut a corner here, I could get out of this alive.” Some do it and convince themselves they’ll “only do it this once.” Like most other things that are horrible for you, it’s never just once. If you take the Red Pill, you never hit the bottom of the rabbit hole. Even today, Glass is still dealing with his past.
4) The Paper (1994) – It’s fiction, it’s ridiculous in spots and yet it is one of the few films that captures the complete randomness of life in a newsroom. From the A/C that breaks to the guy who swears he has “Watergate” on every story, this is a funny story with a great cast. If nothing else, this scene just nailed it for me:
“Who the hell took my stapler?”
If I had a dollar for every time something in a newsroom made me laugh, I’d be able to fund all the newspapers in the world forever. This movie reminds me of that every time I watch it. Probably a biased pick, but give it a look and tell me I’m wrong.
5) Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017) – A wrestler, a sex tape and sleazy internet publication are at the central junction point of this film and perhaps the most important free-press case in decades. The movie looks at the trial of Bollea v. Gawker, which pits wrestling star Hulk Hogan (aka Terry Bollea) against an internet gossip magazine. Gawker was a publication that a lot of people hated for being mean-spirited and snotty, but it also went after “true things about bad people” to quote a former worker. However, at the heart of this case and this film are several crucial questions including, if a sex tape is news, who gets to decide that and what forces are at play behind all of this.
The film goes beyond the “guess who saw the naughty stuff” issue and digs into who was funding Hogan’s legal team, what other multi-millionaires are out there potentially undercutting press freedoms and what this means going forward.
Feel free to tell me I’m wrong about everything, if you so choose.
Tomorrow: The answer to “How can a list like this NOT include ‘All The President’s Men!’ as well as the suggestions of the Hivemind.