The movie poster for this fall’s The Hunting Party features a black-and-white photo of Richard Gere and Terrence Howard, press passes dangling from their necks, pasted on a blood-orange background that reads: LIARS—CHEATS—PLAYBOYS—THIEVES. The last word in this litany? JOURNALISTS.
The poster is meant, presumably, to attract audiences through the sheer force of its irony. (They’re liars and journalists? How intriguing!) But the real irony, most viewers would agree, is how un-ironic these labels are: the mighty fell a long time ago. “Once a cultural hero,” Russell Baker writes of reporters in a recent piece for The New York Review of Books, “he was glamorized in the movies by Clark Gable and she by Rosalind Russell.” But now, on film as in life, “nobody phones the paper expecting to find a hero anymore.”
First: ouch. Second: granted. Gone are the days when a movie journalist—Citizen Kane’s Thompson, Deadline, USA’s Hutcheson, Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein—occupied a black-and-white moral landscape where Right battled Wrong with the sharp sword of Truth. But gone, too, is the post-post-Watergate disenchantment that forced celluloid reporters to fall on that sword through treatments that portrayed them, as Christopher Hanson pointed out in these pages in 1996, as amoral (Absence of Malice), callous (The Paper), credulous (Bob Roberts), cartoonish (I Love Trouble), sensationalist (Network), ambitious (Broadcast News), manipulative (Hero), manipulated (Wag the Dog), murderous (To Die For), or some dastardly fusion thereof. Hollywood’s Janet Malcolmesque indictment of journalists as “morally indefensible” has had its fifteen minutes—well, fifteen years—of infamy. Its time, thankfully, is up.
In its place, we have Capote, which The New Yorker’s David Denby called “the most intelligent, detailed, and absorbing film ever made about a writer’s working method and character.” And Good Night, and Good Luck, whose portrait of Edward R. Murrow is as reverent as it is finely wrought. And Veronica Guerin, whose journalist heroine is murdered—martyred—for her dogged reporting of Dublin’s illegal drug trade. And In My Country. And Infamous. And Blood Diamond and Zodiac and A Mighty Heart. Recent films, from 2003’s Shattered Glass to The Hunting Party, don’t glorify their journalist figures; neither do they reduce them to big-screen villainy. Perhaps taking a cue from journalism’s increasing expansion into mass culture, or perhaps simply sick of all the gloom, these films trade the traditional hero/villain archetype—“mass-mediated myth,” the film scholar Matthew Ehrlich calls it—for nuanced studies of the social, familial, financial, and sometimes ethical compromises journalism demands of its practitioners. With the odd exception (Perfect Stranger, in which Halle Berry’s status as a journalist is a mere plot device, or All the King’s Men, in which Jude Law’s columnist is as flat as the film he narrates), Hollywood is replacing symbolism with sympathy. And its films are better for it.
Take Capote and its (criminally overshadowed) sister film, Infamous. The movies are not portraits of Truman Capote himself—they offer only snippets and insinuations of his life as a whole—but, rather, biographies of his most famous piece of journalism. They depict In Cold Blood from conception (Capote’s serendipitous sighting of a headline about the Holcomb murders), to gestation, to eventual development into a nonfiction novel that is, as Infamous’s Truman purrs, “as dazzling and unique as a Fabergé egg.” The films study the economy-of-two that develops between a reporter and a source, one that transforms truth and trust into valuable—and tradable—commodities. In Capote’s case, those transactions can be turbulent. (“I never judge my characters,” Infamous’s Truman informs Perry, the murderer who is also his key source, by way of encouraging the exchange. “I am not a character,” Perry retorts. “I am a human fucking being.”) The films question the relationships Capote brokers with Perry and his other sources: the way he manipulates their trust. The way he exploits their pain. The way he views them as vehicles for the poetry of his prose. But they also celebrate the journalism In Cold Blood represents, a “new form of reportage” that, as New Yorker editor William Shawn predicts in Capote—correctly, it turns out—“is going to change how people write.”