Museum's Cinematic Bounty Leaves You Reeling

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 6, 2008

Watching the in-house movies at the new Newseum, our first reaction is -- incoming! -- a defensive posture.

As in, information overload. So many offerings, so few mental gigabytes. Here's a seven-minute film about media bias. Another short about media errors. Yet another called "45 Words: A Story of the First Amendment." A heartbreaker about the darkest September day in America's history. A speed-through-history reel of sports coverage since Red Barber play-by-played into the radio mike. And -- holy Sensurround! -- a "4-D" movie that spritzes our faces and rocks our seats as it takes us through the earliest days of American journalism .

And on and on, 27 hours of movies, most of them fewer than 15 minutes in length, booming out of the museum's 15 theaters, kiosks and LCD monitors. All of it intended to make us understand the All, the It, the ever-regenerative tyranny of data. Can we be blamed for feeling just a little dizzy?

We feel caught in the information rapids without a meta-paddle.

Of course, the sheer volume and decentralized ubiquity of the Newseum's movies -- intentionally or not -- reflect only too well our frazzled, overstimulated relationship with the media.

We didn't catch every offering. Sitting through the museum's approximately 100 movies -- ranging in length from one minute to an hour -- is not something we'd expect the average visitor to do either. But after four hours' recap of the way humanity has written, reported and blogged, we think we have a fair and balanced impression.

Maybe we want to see (in "Press Box: The History of Sports Reporting") that Michael Jordan jump shot, Cal Ripken's 2,131st game or -- in schadenfreude mode -- revisit the follies of Jayson Blair, the New York Times reporter who became his own cottage industry of fabrication (in "Getting It Right," an eight-minute film narrated by Bob Schieffer).

Perhaps in sadly contemplative mode, we might seek out "Holocaust: The Untold Story," a 55-minute report on the way the media ignored the Holocaust as it unfolded. Or we might want to experience "A Glimpse of Life: The Pulitzer Photographs," a 19-minute film (and our favorite) that reveals the stories of the photographers as they maneuvered to capture these prize-winning images.

Many films fulfill, even exceed our expectations. Others don't. And two of the museum's touted attractions left us overwhelmed for the wrong reasons.

"Pulitzer Photographs" is all but worth the $20 museum admission fee (the films are free once you're in). To some, it may seem like a cliche to revisit these well-known images, such as the one of Marines raising the flag over Iwo Jima, or the naked Vietnamese girl running down a road suffering from napalm burns. But when we hear from the men and women who took those snapshots, they acquire a second life.

The painful Elián González affair of 2000 -- that tug of war for the 6-year-old refugee between his relatives in Miami and his father in Cuba -- brings that pit in the stomach moment again as photographer Alan Diaz relives his experiences snapping that perfect moment: a terrified Elián cowering in his closet, and the armed American soldier just about to haul him out.

The film "9/11: Running Toward Danger," which contains previously unseen footage of that day's events from WABC-TV in New York, will -- quite simply -- fracture the heart. There it is again: the tears, the dust, the sadness and the horror. It all comes back with an urgency that makes six years disappear. And watching "The Press and the Civil Rights Movement," we are, once more, moved to tears. Civil rights legislation would never have passed in the 1960s but for the power of television news to bring images of social injustice into every living room. Watch those angry racists kicking and beating the defenseless, and the intensity of the experience kicks you, too.

But then come the disappointments. "What's News?," a sort of overture to Everything Media that greets visitors downstairs in the facility, is too fuzzily conceived and cheesily self-celebratory (Journalism Covers War and Peace, Life, Love and Hate, we learn).

And the Newseum's big kahuna, the aforementioned "I-Witness: A 4-D Time Travel Adventure," which plays in the plush Annenberg Theater, is to be missed. Yes, it teaches us many things about the journalism of the distant and recent past. But its entertainment mission -- it's clearly designed to jolt the iPod generation out of its headphone somnambulism -- is jarringly one-dimensional. As we watch an actor playing 19th-century investigative reporter Nellie Bly (who wrote a devastating indictment of the mental health system, after posing as an asylum inmate) or the real Edward R. Murrow broadcasting from London during the Blitz, rat tails whip our ankles, the seats jolt us and watery mist spritzes our faces. Instead of experiencing a "time travel" thrill, we feel as if we're caught in a car wash gone amok. (Hint: You can avoid this by not sitting in the theater's center section.)

We remain perplexed by this whole interactive film thing in museums, including one in Mount Vernon's "Revolutionary War Immersive Experience" that features snow and fog machines, strobe lights and, yes, rumble seats.

Then there's the acting style of reenactment films. To see how high-end period acting should work, catch HBO's current miniseries "John Adams." Here, at a more modest level, unfortunately, the performers come across just as people in wigs and costumes.

Throughout the museum, the movies sit there in eternal rotation, daunting (or at least challenging) in their number and scope. Cull the viewing options to those topics that truly compel and it's possible to learn more than expected and discover themes that truly resonate. In that way it is possible, in the tradition of the best museums -- think of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial -- to find deep connection in a very public space.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company