If, as Philip Graham famously said, news is the first rough draft of history, then movies about news-gathering are an idealized gloss: At their best, they capture the practice and professional culture of journalism with such authenticity and detail that they become especially beloved among real-life reporters, editors and broadcasters. It’s too early to say whether “The Post,” in which Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham quotes her late husband’s words after a momentous decision to print the Pentagon Papers, will be embraced or spiked by demanding newsroom natives. In the meantime, my fellow Post movie critics Michael O’Sullivan, Stephanie Merry and I selected 10 movies we consider the best of the genre. After deciding on our choices, we asked journalists to reflect on why they’re beloved by even the most skeptical ink-stained wretches. — Ann Hornaday, chief film critic of The Washington Post
His Girl Friday (1940)
Howard Hawks’s screwball comedy is justifiably beloved for its rapid-fire, sassy dialogue and the chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell (despite her horrible hats). Walter Burns (Grant) is the pushy devil of an editor. Russell plays his ace reporter and ex-wife, Hildy Johnson.
4 unforgettable scenes from journalism movies
Even more than their fatal attraction, the two journalists share the same killer instinct: They’ll go to hilarious lengths to get the story, ethics be damned. Burns is happy to try to bribe a governor with an endorsement, and Hildy lets her new fiance languish in jail while she chases and taps out her big scoop. Hildy claims she wants to be “a real woman,” marry and have kids, but we know that she’s made for the news, and maybe, Walter. The 1940 movie will make any grizzled reporter wistful for the days when press rooms were crowded with reporters from competing local papers, pre-TV and pre-Internet disruption. The sumptuous black and white also made me nostalgic for smoking and sex in the newsroom. I know that’s politically incorrect, but the news business has always been a magnet for people who are drawn to bad habits. When Grant pats his lap for Russell to sit down (she doesn’t), it seems more funny than sexist.
Those offended by dated, off-color and even racist phrases will find some objectionable moments in “His Girl Friday.” The pleasure is worth the pain.
Citizen Kane (1941)
After two years in the Peace Corps in Africa, I flew home on one of those old jumbo jets. For some reason, the plane was spookily empty, and a classic film was on the big bulkhead screen in coach class: “Citizen Kane.”
Premonition? You decide.
In 1887, William Randolph Hearst became publisher of the San Francisco Examiner, where he started his swashbuckling, empire-building career in newspapers.
It was “Citizen Kane” that elevated the early Hearst enterprise to heroic stature. “I think it would be fun to run a newspaper!” said Orson Welles, as the grand young Kane.
My own connection to the “Citizen Kane” story came in 1987. Years after that flight, and a neat hundred years after the first Hearst took charge of the Examiner, William “Will” Randolph Hearst III took me on as its Washington bureau chief and national columnist.
Much of the zest of “Citizen Kane” remained. What drives daily print journalism isn’t the money, it’s the love of the job.
It’s easily overlooked that “Citizen Kane” is not just a movie about a journalist. It’s also a work of journalism itself. Its entire plot is the effort by editors and reporters to track down what made men like Hearst tick.
Why would a man with all the money in the world want to spend it on newspapering? Is it simply about wanting to be loved?
Orson Welles, the film’s brilliant creator, thought so.
This is a 41-year-old movie that bites like a contemporary satire. Edit out the booze and full-sugar soda, mix in some smartphones and newsroom diversity (though we could use a lot more) and it might as well be a documentary.
We laugh at Howard Beale’s “mad as hell” meltdown, his ratings-crazed promise to kill himself on live TV (“50 share, easy”). We guffaw at his even more ratings-crazed comeback as a “mad prophet of the airwaves.” But here’s the truth: As much as the news business is the lifeblood of democracy, the lifeblood of the news business is you, the viewer. The genius of “Network” is in using this simple fact as a sword that slices both ways. Yes, the news business can sometimes chase ratings with exciting but empty coverage. But it’s society — it’s all of us, our millions of screens — that tune in, rewarding that kind of coverage.
“This tube can make or break presidents, popes, prime ministers,” Beale says in one of his rants. He’s right of course. “This tube is the most awesome goddamn force in the whole godless world. And woe is us if it ever falls into the hands of the wrong people.” Or the wrong audience.
All the President’s Men (1976)
“All the President’s Men” is, above all, a primer on the basics of journalism, at a moment when the stakes are highest. Its focus — rightly — is not just on the reporters and their work, but on the overarching handling of the story as embodied in The Post’s great editor Ben Bradlee.
The movie reminds us that Bradlee was the center of gravity of the newspaper and of our reporting lives. As captured by Jason Robards’s brilliant performance, he was electric and dominant, a general (and patriot) with utter command of his troops and the landscape. The Bradlee of the movie displays only random joy because he knows the consequence of the battle. He is overseer, supporter, spokesman (“Let’s stand by the boys,” he declares at The Post’s lowest moment in the story), but also dedicated skeptic and doubter. He pushes us and questions us — very hard. On the little TV screen in the Post newsroom, Nixon’s press secretary, Ron Ziegler, is smug as he insists that the conduct of The Post — as personified by Bradlee — is the issue in Watergate, not the conduct of the president and his men. (“You have a man who is the editor over at The Washington Post by the name of Ben Bradlee.”)
Bradlee’s message to us and colleagues was simple: Get it right, check, be sure, move slowly, no story needs to run the next day. Be patient. We weren’t. When we made a major mistake he was the most severe figure in the newsroom with us. But also the most understanding, supportive and forgiving. “Let’s stand by the boys.” This was one time the Academy Awards got it right, when Robards, as Ben Bradlee, won the Oscar.
The Killing Fields (1984)
“The Killing Fields” is an angry film, justifiably so. There are few events in modern history that justify rage as does the collapse of Cambodia in the 1970s. The movie’s cinematographer, Chris Menges, is a legendary documentary filmmaker, and he is able to produce something vivid and true to life.
The story is, of course, about geopolitics — the Khmer Rouge’s victory over the United States-backed Lon Nol’s government and the genocide it perpetrated on its own people thereafter. But at its heart is a friendship, between an American reporter, the New York Times’s Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), and his Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran (Haing S. Ngor, who won an Oscar). The second half of the film is a wrenching tale of Pran’s survival as the Khmer Rouge hunt down and kill educated and urban Cambodians (among others) in a frenzied reign of terror. We see the events through the eyes of someone forced to live through hell.
The aspect of Roland Joffe’s film that most stays with me is that international politics should not be thought of as an abstraction, a game of chess being played by politicians and diplomats. It has immediate, tangible and sometimes terrible consequences. I try to bring that recognition to my work every week. And every now and then, if I feel angry, I remind myself that sometimes anger is the right response.
Broadcast News (1987)
It’s hard to believe that the diminutive Holly Hunter could contain as much drive, passion and drama as her producer character Jane Craig does in “Broadcast News.” Think what might happen if Mary Richards ate nails for breakfast and was as “tightly wound” as a Timex.
Re-watching reminded me how much I loved the classic moments, like Jane’s crazy crying jags and, of course, Aaron’s (Albert Brooks) flop sweat. When the network president tells Jane, “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room,” she replies, “No, it’s awful.” It’s an unvarnished look at the vanity, insanity and profanity that permeates the news business, as well as the heart-pounding, adrenaline-producing high that comes with getting the story right and making the deadline in the nick of time (video tape and all!).
Writer-director James L. Brooks flipped the script on gender roles: If this were Pygmalion, Jane would be Henry Higgins and the news anchor Tom (William Hurt) would be Eliza Doolittle, and instead of competing women, the “cat fight” is between two men. And while Jane is an overbearing, obnoxious perfectionist, she is also a kind, loyal and appreciative colleague. Imagine, a multidimensional woman and not an archetype!
But my favorite character by far is the earnest, erudite Aaron (with apologies for the alliteration, which he abhorred), who can interview Gaddafi, highlight the idiosyncrasies of flying an F-14 and sing a mean French pop song. Wherever he and Jane are, 30 years later, I hope they’re still friends and still giving them hell.
Shattered Glass (2003)
Back in 1998, if you had told me there would be a movie about Stephen Glass fabricating stories for the New Republic, much less a successful one — and still less one casting me as a hero — I would have said you were crazy. TNR’s editor at the time, I felt ashamed of publishing Glass’s fakes, not proud of belatedly busting him. After “Shattered Glass,” movie fans all over the world sent me far more congratulations than my actual journalism ever evoked. The power of film.
“Shattered Glass” nails that era’s TNR office culture, right down to Glass’s trademark blue Oxford shirt and khakis. Visiting the sound stage during production, I momentarily freaked out at Glass’s smiling approach — but exhaled when I realized it was his on-screen doppelganger, Hayden Christensen.
Writer-director Billy Ray got the big picture right, too, making a story of journalistic practice an exploration of human nature. “Shattered Glass” dramatizes the disturbingly nonrational basis of belief. Glass gained credibility with readers and even fellow journalists by exploiting stereotype, emotion and bias — by figuring out what people wanted to read, true or not, and giving it to them. If there’s a more relevant message today, I can’t think of it.
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)
I love this George Clooney film for the way it uses the 1950s McCarthy inquisition to illustrate the critical role television news can perform — if it has the courage to do so.
Clooney re-creates the visual tropes of the time, shooting in black-and-white images often framed by cigarette smoke, interspersed with archival footage of Sen. Joe McCarthy himself. Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) warns fellow broadcasters at a 1958 awards dinner to hold the powerful accountable, even as network executives and their advertising masters try to straitjacket Murrow and his colleagues, one of whom takes his own life as a result of the Communist-baiting witch hunt.
The film is exquisitely current at a time when the news media are being attacked as “the enemy of the people.” Murrow helped bring down McCarthy by exposing his lies and bullying tactics. But four years later, as the film ends, Murrow tells his colleagues that if television is used only to “entertain, amuse and insulate,” then “the whole struggle is lost.” He goes on to say: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” A prescient warning, in television’s infancy, more than a half-century ago.
So much of Ron Howard’s stunning film had me on edge, from David Frost’s ambition to become part of the world broadcast scene by getting an interview with Richard Nixon to his frustration raising outside money (he had to write a personal check to Nixon for $200,000) to Nixon’s attempts to throw Frost off his game by mentioning the “effeminate” look of Frost’s Italian shoes.
The interview subject who knew exactly how to take control of a conversation by pontificating and going off-topic was so familiar to me. I’ve experienced it many times in my own career, especially when speaking with former secretary of defense Robert McNamara regarding Vietnam. Watching Frost in the first two interviews, I kept screaming at the screen: Jump in! Don’t let him get away with that!
In the final interview, Frost (Michael Sheen) finally becomes the powerful interrogator his entire staff had prayed for: He puts aside his scrawled questions, zeros in and forcefully interrupts Nixon’s (Frank Langella) efforts at dodging. He speaks from his gut! As Nixon answers, the familiar perspiration breaks out on his face. The final meeting between the two men, where Frost brings Nixon a pair of the “effeminate” shoes that Frost says Nixon “so admired,” perfectly symbolizes how brilliantly Frost turned the tables.
At one point, as director Tom McCarthy was putting the finishes touches on “Spotlight,” he asked me, “Is there anything that doesn’t seem authentic?” I asked, “Is that important to you?” “Absolutely,” McCarthy said.
In their film about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the coverup of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer wanted to reflect how journalism really works, and their success ranks as one of the movie’s greatest strengths. That accomplishment involves more than portraying the routinely tedious mechanics of investigative journalism. It encompasses the frustrations and sense of mission that consume reporters and editors as well as journalists’ often fragile relationship with sources. In one powerful scene, reporter Sacha Pfeiffer interviews Joe Crowley about the abuse he suffered: “Can you tell me specifically what happened?” Sacha asks. “Specifically, he . . . he molested me,” Crowley responds. Sacha delicately but determinedly presses for more: “Joe, I think that the language is going to be so important here. We can’t sanitize this. Just saying molest isn’t enough. People need to know what actually happened.”
Crucially, “Spotlight” also shows journalism with its flaws. Without them, I could not honestly have assured McCarthy that he achieved the authenticity he sought.