Arriving today in theaters nationwide on a wave of warm reviews and prestige-picture aura is Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which chronicles The Washington Post’s attempt to publish the Pentagon Papers. Any movie showing journalists as heroic, let alone played by cinematic icons such as Tom Hanks (Ben Bradlee) and Meryl Streep (Katharine Graham), is a tonic for a tough year for journalism.
The Post reintroduces the power of journalism for the public good, much like what the Oscar-winning Spotlight did in 2015. The Post also provides an opportunity to reflect on the abundance of first-rate movies about journalism. Last year offered a bumper crop: the documentaries Voyeur (on that whole Gay Talese and Gerald Foos affair), Joan Didion: The Center Will Not Hold, HBO’s documentary on Bradlee, and Obit. (a wonderful look at The New York Times’s obituary writers). The brilliant James Baldwin documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, was nominated for a best documentary feature Oscar.
So the time was right for CJR to pester first-rate journalists via Twitter and email with two simple questions: What’s your favorite journalism movie? And why? Here’s what they told us, in their own words. (Responses have been edited lightly for brevity and clarity.)
Maria Cramer, legal affairs reporter, The Boston Globe
Absence of Malice (1981). Technically, this is a horror film for journalists. But what I appreciate about this 1981 movie is how much it reminds me of the importance of doing our job right. Sally Field plays a newspaper reporter who behaves cavalierly toward sources, fails to fully vet a tip from a self-interested prosecutor, and, of course, has an affair with someone she writes about. She is a terrible reporter and admits so at the end in words to this effect: “My job is important. I just did it badly.” It takes a lot for her to become penitent—tragedy, professional humiliation and a lecture from Wilford Brimley in a delicious scene where all the guilty parties get their comeuppance. Everyone should watch this movie for the scene with Brimley alone.
Reporters should watch the movie for the heartbreaking scene of a source done wrong by Field’s character and her editor. The source knows that day’s paper has a story that will ruin her and steals the papers in her neighborhood in a desperate attempt to hide the damaging news. It seems like a dated scene in the digital age but the message it conveys is still relevant: We have the power to devastate and sometimes we wield it carelessly, even cruelly.
Adam Harris, reporter, The Chronicle of Higher Education
I have a love/hate relationship with my favorite journalism movie, Frost/Nixon (2008), for a couple of reasons. After all, Frost pays for the interview. However, setting aside the bad, interviewing is among the most imperfect of arts, and a “good” interview requires the right mix of preparation and timing. You can do all of the preparation in the world for an interview, ask the right set of follow-up questions, and still get nothing interesting if the person you’re speaking with is just as prepared—or simply isn’t willing to give you [the] answer. What Frost/Nixon does is dramatically show the vulnerability necessary for success in interviews, and really does a good job of showing just how poorly or well an interview can go depending on your cocktail of preparation and timing.
Mark Harris, author of Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back
Is there a journalist who doesn’t love All the President’s Men, a movie that not only considers us to be the good guys but that shows journalism as actual work—effort, doggedness, frustration, chance, persistence? It’s the movie that made me want to become a journalist. Most of my other choices, from His Girl Friday to Broadcast News to Spotlight, would probably appear on many other lists as well. But I do want to single out one smaller movie, Billy Ray’s 2003 film Shattered Glass, about the Stephen Glass/New Republic fakery scandal. I was a mid-level magazine editor when it opened, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more realistic portrayal of someone who had a job like mine than Peter Sarsgaard gave as Glass’s editor Charles Lane. He (and, of course, Billy Ray’s script) both captured the constant exhaustion, the weird parenting aspect of the job, and the permanent (or at least, it ought to be permanent) low-level dread of letting something slip that results in a destructive error. All the President’s Men is inspiration, but Shattered Glass is on-the-job training.
Jay Caspian Kang, writer at large, The New York Times Magazine, and correspondent, Vice News
The only good journalism movie is Broadcast News (1987). All other journalism movies are absurd.
Eugene Kiely, director, Factcheck.org
I have numerous favorites, so this is tough. Front Page, Network, Broadcast News, and, more recently, Spotlight in particular.
But I have to say my favorite of all time is All the President’s Men (1976). Nixon resigned in 1974, when I was a freshman in high school. The movie came out in 1976, when I was a junior. At this point in my life, I knew I wanted to write and I figured the only way to make money doing it was to be a reporter. I was initially thinking of being a sports reporter and, in fact, I was a sports reporter for the high school paper. But I had an interest in politics, too. I spent my grade school years reading a series of books on the US presidents. Being an Irish Catholic, I was introduced early to Kennedy and knew about Nixon at a young age because he lost to Kennedy in a close and controversial election. I was riveted by Nixon’s fall and the role of news reporters in uncovering the truth. I read All the President’s Men, saw the movie, and found my calling. It had a very big influence on my career. Woodward and Bernstein made reporting important, and Redford and Hoffman made reporting sexy. I was hooked. I loved the newsroom scenes—the controlled chaos that happens every day in trying to nail down the story and beat a deadline. I loved the cloak and dagger of the secret meetings with Deep Throat—the way your heart beats a little faster knowing you have a story that nobody else has. I loved everything about the movie and fell in love with political reporting; in particular, the kind of accountability journalism that was practiced by Woodward and Bernstein. I spent most of my career writing and editing political stories. My favorite newsroom was at the Philadelphia Inquirer at 400 North Broad Street, because it looked like the newsroom in All the President’s Men—a vast open space filled with metal desks and bathed in fluorescent lights. Ugly and beautiful, at the same time.
Mina Kimes, senior writer, ESPN the Magazine
One of my favorite movies growing up—a film I loved so much, I made my mom rent it from the local library over and over years after it came out—was The Adventures of Nellie Bly (1981). It’s a made-for-television movie about Bly, the muckraking reporter who became famous for writing about gonzo stunts like spending 10 days in a madhouse and traveling the world by herself. It’s not a great film by any standard, but I loved it for some reason, and I watched it at least a dozen times. I didn’t even want to be a journalist back then; I just wanted to be like Nellie. I still do!
Rafi Kohan, author of The Arena and head of editorial for Atlantic Re:think
I don’t know if it really counts as being a journalism movie, but The Basketball Diaries (1994) was a pretty seminal film for me personally, as a middle-school student. The material itself was of course thrilling, but what really stuck with me was Jim [Carroll’s] notebook, the power and importance of always scribbling, observing, and channeling the world through one’s own lens (and pen). As a writer/reporter, I’m a compulsive note-taker. Although I’ve never played pickup on downers.
Jessica W. Luther, author of Unsportsmanlike Conduct and co-host of the Burn It All Down podcast
There’s a moment in Spotlight that I think about a lot.
About 90 minutes into the film, a source tells Mark Ruffalo’s character, journalist Michael Rezendes, about a public court filing. This matters because most of the case surrounding one particular serial predator priest is under seal. Rezendes then makes a literal sprint, pushing people out of his way as he runs to the Suffolk County Records office. But they have just closed. So, he sits and waits. As soon as it opens again, he is there, making his request. But the clerk won’t honor it because the case is sealed,so Rezendes goes to plead his case to a judge. The next time we see him, he is, once again, sitting and waiting outside the judge’s office and then he waits inside the judge’s office as the judge reads through the file and the request. The judge asks about the “editorial responsibility in publishing these records.” Rezendes responds, “Where’s the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?” The next thing we see is Rezendes back in the records office, the file on the counter in front of him. He picks it up to go to the copy room but the clerk tells him he can’t take it: The copy room closed at 4. He then bribes the clerk with $83 to let him use the photocopier there in the records office. With the copies in hand, he races outside, flags down a cab, and races back to the Globe. In his hands is concrete evidence of a cover up.
So much of my experience with investigative journalism could be classified as ‘hurry up and wait.’ For so long, nothing happens and then suddenly everything happens. Or you have real momentum but then you have to navigate around a wall that sprung up unexpectedly in front of you. This is all so perfectly captured by this bit in Spotlight. I felt so seen as a journalist while watching this. I could turn to my family and say, “That’s what my life is like.” Kudos to the filmmakers for making [a reporter getting] a single document such high drama.
Stephen Rodrick, contributing editor, Rolling Stone; writer at large, Esquire
Almost Famous (2000), Cameron Crowe’s thinly disguised memoir of his early days at Rolling Stone.
There’s a scene in the film where William Miller is trying to get rockstar Russell Hammond to talk with him, and the guy tells him to go away. Miller gives Hammond’s hotel room two middle fingers. I identify with that, with the exception Miller was 15 and I’ve been doing that well into middle age. The films gives a great look into the kind of immersion reporting that happens when you spends days on end with a rock band or on a movie set. Patience is a virtue.
Best line: Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lester Bangs gives Miller some sage advice: “They’ll buy you drinks, you’ll meet girls, they’ll try to fly you places for free, offer you drugs…I know. It sounds great. But they are not your friends. These are people who want you to write sanctimonious stories about the genius of the rock stars, and they will ruin rock and roll and strangle everything we love about it.”
Wendy Ruderman, investigative reporter for The Philadelphia Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer
I sobbed after seeing Spotlight. It inspired so much pride and wistfulness. And it so nailed the newsroom culture. It felt so real and authentic. The newsroom banter, the way reporters dress, the way reporters live for documents and how we feel when we can’t—and then do—get our hands on them. I recognized glimpses of the best and worst of myself in that movie, like the way I would neglect my marriage chasing a story and would do it over and over again to its bitter end. The way I cared about the victims who entrusted me with their stories. The way I work to bring heat and light and change with my work and then when I do, I’m amazed…like when the characters came into work the day the story ran and their phones were ringing off the hook and they felt awed by the response. It’s such a great movie. It represents the best of our profession and portrays the job and its characters to a spot-on “T.”
John Upton, features journalist, Climate Central
The Paper (1994) is a film I’ve watched over and over. Its rousing cast and screenplay convey much of what makes working in the industry special, and in a warts-and-all kind of way—the quest for truth, the caustic personalities, the exhilarating tempo, the sickly and often unfair effects on lives and lifestyles—while being slapstick enough to remind us that what we’re watching is being romanticized.
David Weigel, political reporter, The Washington Post
Reds (1981). Unjustly forgotten now, written off unfairly as New Hollywood bloat—I think it was the last film with an intermission until Gods and Generals—Warren Beatty’s magnum opus is a very particular sort of journalism movie. John Reed, played by Beatty himself, is a tragic figure set on his path because he wants to be where the action is. He makes, and keeps, friends according to how creative they are. He covers the Russian Revolution because he wants it to succeed. There are no speeches about the grand, neutral ideals of journalism, because Reed does not care about them. He cares about being there for great events. Beatty also more-or-less invented a style of documentary here, introducing segments of the story with interviews of Reed’s real-life contemporaries.
Elise Young, US East reporter for Bloomberg News, Bloomberg Politics, and Bloomberg Businessweek.
Oh, I’m shallow on this one. Absence of Malice because Paul Newman serving lunch for two on that boat is a nice ethics dilemma to dream about. Sigh.