short takes

The Big Picture

Movie journalists get an image makeover
December 6, 2007

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.”

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.”

Sign up for CJR's daily email

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.

In this issue’s Research Report, Michael Schudson and Danielle Haas give scientific backbone to The Hunting Party’s message: However low the institution of The Media may have plummeted in the mass imagination, they write, reporters close to home remain figures of faith. And, therefore, figures of fascination. It’s no coincidence that so many of the journalists Hollywood has given us of late—Truman Capote, Veronica Guerin, Stephen Glass, Zodiac’s Robert Graysmith, Daniel Pearl, Edward Murrow—are based on real-world reporters. Contemporary films reveal a cultural desire to understand journalism’s realities, to appreciate, on a basic level, the work that goes into writing the first draft of history. They also suggest the fact that the pool of those writers has been, in recent years, steadily—exponentially—expanding. (Superman Returns, whose Lois and Clark are two of pop culture’s most famous reporters, gives a playful nod to citizen journalism. “These are iconic,” the Daily Planet’s editor barks at his staff, holding photos of Superman, “and they were taken by a twelve-year-old with a camera phone.”) Journalism is evolving, and Hollywood, cultural mirror that it is, is reflecting its growth. Today’s celluloid journalists may not be forged in the stark contrasts of the past, but their complexity makes them stronger characters, more empathetic and more tantalizingly, identifiably human—more, in short, like their audiences. On the big screen, as in life, they’re still worth looking up to.

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.