Try some of these great movies about the importance of the Fourth Estate
Posted July 12
Late in the film “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” the title character’s mentor, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), tells Peter Parker (Tom Holland) that reporters he has gathered for a press conference are “real ones — not bloggers.”
I’m not sure how that one-liner will be received by online newsfolk, but veteran ink-stained wretches, who tend to think of themselves as keepers of the flame, will no doubt chuckle in recognition.
Of course, this started me thinking about movies that depict newsgathering, which is only natural given that the press is under such scrutiny these days.
It’s an interesting time for journalists, whether their stories are on paper or on screens of the TV, computer or iPhone variety. Are reporters out to cause trouble, are they letting personal biases get in the way, or do they actually have a desire to accurately report news events?
The question seems pertinent in this social media age of “alternative facts.” Is there a difference between “fake news” and the “legitimate press”? And just how important or relevant is the Fourth Estate in the 21st century?
Most of us in the industry believe it’s more important and relevant than ever.
What you’re reading now is a column, of course, which is by definition a personal opinion piece. But most of us began on the news side. I was a reporter on the city desk at the Ogden Standard-Examiner and then the Deseret News before my interest in film took me down another path.
And most of the reporters I’ve known have genuinely wanted to ferret out the truth, while struggling to keep their personal opinions out of it. Which is something that a lot of movies have tried to explore on various levels.
Dozens of newspaper movies were released back in the 1930s. As soon as talkies usurped silents, audiences couldn’t get enough of fast-talking reporters fighting crime, battling editors and sometimes taking unethical shortcuts that were often outlandish and sometimes downright ridiculous.
In the decades that followed, however, movies about journalism became more sophisticated and more realistic, and they were often jaded and sometimes uncomfortably on point.
Perhaps the single most famous example is Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941), in which a formidable newspaper owner learns the hard way about power corrupting. Loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, the film is often cited as one of the best ever made.
A few decades later came a pair of jet-black, R-rated satires, cautionary tales about TV news: “Network” (1976), which now seems startlingly prescient in its depiction of participatory journalism and reality TV, and “Broadcast News” (1987), a poke in the eye at attractive but vapid news readers and the uncompromising but less camera-friendly reporters who prop them up.
But it’s a pair of fact-based stories that best portray the difficulties of gathering news in a hostile environment: “All the President’s Men” and “Spotlight.”
Based on the 1974 best-seller by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, “All the President’s Men” (1976, PG) stars Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as the respective authors, Washington Post reporters covering the Watergate Hotel break-in when they uncover a scandal that will ultimately topple a president. The film meticulously re-creates the dogged reporting that revealed double-dealing in the White House and manages to build suspense in the process.
Similarly, the R-rated “Spotlight” (2015) relates the story of the Boston Globe’s investigative team (led onscreen by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams), which pursued an uncomfortable series of allegations of child sex abuse that were lodged against Catholic priests in the Boston area.
In real life, both papers’ stories earned Pulitzer Prizes, and both films won Oscars.
Other fine films that relate true stories with scrupulous re-creations of news coverage include “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005, PG), “The Insider” (1999, R) and “The Killing Fields” (1984, R).
There are also uncountable, highly entertaining fiction films about newspapers, painting reporters with broad strokes as either unflinching crusaders or as unprincipled glory hogs.
Humphrey Bogart is a hard-nosed New York newspaper editor in “Deadline — U.S.A.” (1952), working with his staff to take down a powerful gangster as the paper’s last hurrah before it’s sold to a rival scandal sheet. (Some of this plot found its way into the pilot for the “Lou Grant” television series, another excellent depiction of newspapering that ran for five seasons, 1977-82.)
In “Absence of Malice” (1981, PG), Sally Field plays a Florida reporter who allows herself to be manipulated by a corrupt prosecutor to implicate an innocent businessman (Paul Newman) in a crime, while the thriller “State of Play” (2009, PG-13) has old-school reporting by Russell Crowe clashing with new-school blogging by Rachel McAdams as they look into the murder of a congressman’s staffer.
Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951) casts Kirk Douglas as an unscrupulous New York reporter in New Mexico when a cave-in traps a local miner, and Douglas hinders the rescue for selfish reasons, and in “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957) Burt Lancaster is a powerful, cruel newspaper columnist who uses his column as a bully pulpit.
There are also lighter pictures, ranging from Frank Capra’s multiple Oscar-winning romantic comedy “It Happened One Night” (1935), with Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, to the rapid-fire farce “The Front Page” (1931/1974) — and its even better distaff incarnations, “His Girl Friday” (1940), with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, and “Switching Channels” (1988), with Kathleen Turner and Burt Reynolds.
There are many more, of course, but these are among the best, and they’ll certainly get you started, whether you’re looking for flicks that show journalists as doggedly pursuing truth, justice and the American way, or merely attempting to raise circulation or ratings.
Chris Hicks is the author of "Has Hollywood Lost Its Mind? A Parent’s Guide to Movie Ratings." He also writes at www.hicksflicks.com and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.