The Capote films are exceptional in their deconstruction of the journalistic process, but they’re certainly not alone in that. Shattered Glass is as much about the editorial process at The New Republic—and answering the “how could that have happened?” question at the heart of the Stephen Glass fabrication scandal—as it is about the fabricator himself. Zodiac studies, through the lens of reporters covering northern California’s Zodiac murders, the obsession that can haunt journalists when their attempts to fulfill their most basic mandate—to find out what happened—are continually thwarted. Scoop, Woody Allen’s nouveau-screwball tale of an investigative reporter (Ian McShane) who returns from death to help a living journalist (Scarlett Johansson) chase a story, makes a brief departure from its overall intellectual thinness to consider the nature of the scoop itself. (“You have to get the story first,” the reporter-wraith tells his protégé, “but first you have to get the story right.”) Good Night, and Good Luck, which many critics reduced to a morality play, is even more a study of journalism in practice, a smoke-swathed tableau of the daily decisions, revisions, and compromises by whose alchemy information becomes news. Good Night’s chief action, as Salon’s Stephanie Zacharek observes, is decision-making. “I’ve searched my conscience,” Edward Murrow (David Strathairn) says as he announces his decision to editorialize against Senator Joseph McCarthy, “and I cannot accept that there are two equivalent sides to every story.”
Which reflects another shift. Recent films study not only journalism, but journalists—the simmering stews of arrogance, insecurity, idealism, and cynicism who filter news to the public. Consider, again, Shattered Glass: even as it condemns Glass’s transgressions, the film considers the obsessive need for approval that led him to commit them. At the opposite extreme, Veronica Guerin complicates the martyrdom of its eponymous heroine (Cate Blanchett) by suggesting, through its focus on Guerin’s family as much as her profession, that Guerin’s life wasn’t entirely her own to sacrifice. A Mighty Heart, similarly, studies the murder of journalist Daniel Pearl through the eyes of his wife, Mariane (Angelina Jolie), and the family and friends he left behind. Even the act of martyrdom, dying in the name of reportorial pursuit—formerly a guaranteed ticket to journalistic heroism—is a complex proposition in these films. The death of a journalist is not the demise of an empty symbol, but rather the loss of a human life. It’s a small change, but a noteworthy one.
There’s one exception, however, to this insistently prismatic view of journalist characters, one way in which the hero/villain paradigm still applies: in postmodernity’s quintessential antihero, the commercial profiteer. Good Night, and Good Luck’s real villain isn’t McCarthy—the film’s reduction of the demagogic senator to mere archival footage suggests this even as it adds a touch of vérité to George Clooney’s cinéma—but, rather, CBS advertisers and the corporate management that caves to them. Those composite commercial interests, invisible yet omnipresent in the newsroom’s hermetic haze, present the greatest obstacle to Murrow’s eloquent editorials. In Blood Diamond, Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connelly) views her reporting of Sierra Leone’s civil war as a weapon against the commercial diamond trade that foments the bloodshed she observes. In My Country, whose journalists (Juliette Binoche and Samuel L. Jackson) navigate memory in South Africa, pits the pithy, sound bite-happy reports their organizations demand (“twenty seconds…that’s all we’ve got to grab the listeners by the balls,” one radio editor puts it) against the vast landscape of Apartheid’s atrocities.
Which brings us back to The Hunting Party—that, despite the fairly tasteless collisions it forces between the grim and the glib, offers insights into both the preservation of memory and the commercial influences that can confound that effort. Based on Scott Anderson’s Esquire story about real-life reporters chasing (and, in the film, finding) war criminals in Bosnia, the film bridges the cinema of the past and the present by juxtaposing two facets of the journalistic prism: The Media—that vague, institutional, and often commercially motivated force—and the individual journalist. While The Media often miss the mark in pursuing truth, The Hunting Party suggests, the individual journalist can still be trusted to get the story, in every sense, right.