Review: 'Breslin and Hamill' pays tribute to newspapers in their heyday

Posted January 25, 2019 2:33 p.m. EST

— Newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were both larger-than-life figures, providing a colorful spine to the HBO documentary "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists." But the larger issue -- one far more significant and timely than the anecdotes and memories -- addresses the decline in the brand of local journalism that these two New York fixtures embodied.

The HBO documentary does a fine job of shedding light on the two men and their work, which CNN's John Avlon describes as "literature in real time, on deadline."

Their columns were not only beautifully written and occasionally heartbreaking -- see Breslin's New York Herald Tribune piece on the gravedigger who prepared John F. Kennedy's burial plot, or Hamill's harrowing on-the-scene account of the Sept. 11 terror attack -- but carried a strong sense of advocacy, usually on behalf of those who lacked a voice.

As sportswriter Mike Lupica puts it, the nature of those columns hinged on "using the tools of a novelist to tell a news story."

Their lives also contained no shortage of drama, from Breslin's bombastic personality -- which frequently got him in trouble -- and the tragic loss of his daughters to Hamill's high-profile relationships, which included dating Jackie Onassis and Shirley MacLaine.

Still, the heart of the film resides in capturing what increasingly feels like a bygone era, when vibrant newspapers -- and the "big personalities with big opinions" they employed -- were powerfully connected to their communities.

As the film soberly notes near the end, that late-20th-century expression of American journalism in such muscular form has steadily declined -- underscored by employment totals at the New York Daily News, where both Breslin and Hamill worked as columnists, which has shrunk from 400 reporters and editors three decades ago to 45.

That is, admittedly, a whole lot of material upon which to chew, and the documentary can feel a little ungainly at times as it ping-pongs back and forth between these men's lives -- personally and the professionally -- as well as the more macro forces at play.

Directed and produced by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy, "Deadline Artists" is clearly imbued with a soft spot for the two men at its core, whatever their flaws and foibles.

In a sense, though, the film risks burying the lede. Because fundamentally, it's a wider ode to what they represented, and a chapter in journalism's history that is gradually fading, one page -- and round of layoffs -- at a time.

"Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists" premieres Jan. 28 at 8 p.m. on HBO. Like CNN, HBO is a unit of WarnerMedia.