Rating: (2.5 stars)
It’s entirely appropriate and fully intentional that the subtitle of “Scandalous” bills the documentary about the history of the National Enquirer — a supermarket tabloid known for its proclivity for hyperbole — as the newspaper’s “untold” story, when there is little if anything in this film that close followers of new media haven’t already heard before. Beginning with the Enquirer’s roots as a failing New York broadsheet, and following the switch to a tabloid “gore-rag” format after its 1952 purchase by Generoso “Gene” Pope Jr., who eventually moved the headquarters to Florida, “Scandalous” sets the stage for the paper’s entry into its golden age: at the checkout stands of every grocery store in America. In this new and lucrative market, stories about grisly murder were replaced by sensationalistic gossip, tales of alien abduction and more Elvis Presley, Oprah Winfrey and Michael Jackson news than you ever knew you needed.
Director Mark Landsman gathers many entertaining reminiscences from former reporters and editors of the paper, supplementing them with commentary from such journalistic talking heads as Carl Bernstein, Ken Auletta and Maggie Haberman. The Enquirer’s gradual shift away from making up stuff to actually breaking news — a shift established with its coverage of the O.J. Simpson trial — is well told, as are chapters of the film that deal with the unsavory practices of “checkbook” and “catch-and-kill” journalism. The latter refers to the practice of negotiating exclusive rights to a story — typically one that embarrasses a celebrity — and then withholding publication of that story, in exchange for access to the celebrity.
David Pecker, a longtime friend of President Trump’s whose company American Media Inc. owned the tabloid until this year, recently admitted to burying a story about Trump’s affair with a former Playboy model during the 2016 election. Trump actually first pops up at the film’s halfway point, in the context of the paper’s coverage of his relationship with Marla Maples, who became his second wife.
“Scandalous” is filled with interesting stories: How the Enquirer was blamed for Princess Diana’s paparazzi-related death, for instance, even through no photographers for the paper were among those chasing her on the night of her fatal 1997 car accident. Other scandals that are touched upon include the 2001 death of photojournalist Bob Stevens, from anthrax, after AMI received tainted envelopes in the mail.
And of course, no documentary about the Enquirer would be complete without mention of its most recent scandal. Earlier this year, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos accused the paper of extortion, releasing communications from Enquirer executives threatening to publish intimate photos of him unless he backed off an investigation of the tabloid. (Bezos also owns The Washington Post.)
All of these make for engrossing, if hardly untold, tales. But what gives the lurid, titillating — and even, at times, fun — aspects of “Scandalous” a more sober edge are the journalistic implications, best articulated by former Washington Post reporter Bernstein, who calls the Enquirer’s frontal assault on truth and integrity “as corrupt as you can be.”
Unrated. At Landmark’s West End Cinema. Contains nothing objectionable. 97 minutes.