Breslin and Hamill — ever heard of ’em?
I jest, soberly, and only because of the fresh hell that today’s journalists have endured in recent days, with big layoffs passing through chain-owned newspapers (who’s left to lay off, you might wonder) as well as the digital newsrooms of HuffPost and BuzzFeed News. And the Newseum, a safe space for fetishizing the typewriters and smoke-filled newsrooms of yore, announced after a long financial struggle that it’s selling its fancy building on Pennsylvania Avenue NW to Johns Hopkins University.
It’s difficult, then, to shut off Twitter and receive the long, lovingly made documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” (airing on HBO Monday night, produced and directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy) as it’s intended, part of an ongoing Irish wake for an increasingly vanished news era.
Just enough of the film poses a warning about the loss of local reporting, in New York and all the places that unfortunately aren’t New York, particularly when it comes to old-school columnists who hit the streets and came back with stories about everyday people’s problems.
“Breslin and Hamill” opens in late 1984 as Jimmy Breslin, then a columnist at the New York Daily News, takes the morally correct but certainly minority opinion about Bernhard Goetz, a white, 44-year-old electrical engineer who shot four black teenagers on a New York subway car after they demanded cash. We see Breslin in his full-blown, trademark bombast and righteousness, making the rounds on TV (“Donahue,” back then), happy to tell people how wrong they are. Despite popular support for Goetz’s vigilantism at first, Breslin files column after column against the tide, repeatedly noting how many of the kids were shot in the back, while fleeing.
The film then expands into a fuller biography of both Breslin (who died in 2017 at 88) and his friend and fellow traveler, Pete Hamill (now 83), a New York Post columnist who also wound up at the Daily News. By way of introduction, we see Hamill, in 1989, taking on Donald Trump, a blowhard real estate developer who bought full-page ads encouraging the execution of the young (and, it turned out, innocent) suspects in the Central Park Jogger attack: “Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough . . . Trump stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who lead well-defended lives.”
In other words, they told you so. At close to two hours, “Breslin and Hamill” may preach too long, but its copious valentines are appropriately strewn with little heartbreaks — the hard Irish-American upbringings of both men, leading to their triumphs and failures, their struggles with booze and (especially for Breslin) their experiences with grief.
The film is heavier on Breslin, digging up his classic columns on President Kennedy’s 1963 assassination as well as his memorable defense of a female police officer who was fired because she once posed for nude photos. Hamill, meanwhile, is seen as the city’s poet, and together they serve their readers in different and effective ways, through such ragingly big stories as the Son of Sam murders, the AIDS epidemic and rioting in Crown Heights.
Breslin becomes a household name outside the five boroughs (doing TV ads for Grape-Nuts cereal; hosting “Saturday Night Live”), while Hamill makes the scene with Jackie Onassis or Shirley MacLaine on his arm. Breslin briefly self-destructs at his new gig at Newsday in 1990, suspended for lashing out at a colleague with racist terms. Hamill becomes a short-tenured boss, running the newsroom of the New York Post and, later, the Daily News.
The industry’s losses drench the story in excessive tears, up to and including last year’s evisceration of the Daily News’s reporting staff. Only Gloria Steinem wisely suggests that the essence of what Breslin and Hamill did so well — telling stories, narrative reporting — remains very much intact, an essential part of human behavior. Everything else was just format and cursing.
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists (110 minutes) airs Monday at 8 p.m. on HBO.