10 great films about journalists

Stop the press! With Spotlight now on Blu-ray and DVD, it’s time to revisit some of the juiciest journalism movies.

1 June 2016

By Lou Thomas

Spotlight (2015)

Spotlight’s best picture and best screenplay success at the 2016 Oscars was a moment of triumph for journalists on film. Carefully and intelligently portraying the painstaking efforts of the Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of child abuse in the Catholic church, Tom McCarthy’s sober but compelling film allows a crew of badly dressed reporters a shot at cinematic heroism. More frequently, journalists on screen are presented as lying, cheating weasels who would sell their mum into slavery for a hot story and throw in their dad for a couple of beers on top. The truth is somewhat more nuanced, though. Most of them would want a free meal too.

McCarthy’s heavyweight award-winner is now available on Blu-ray and DVD, so the time is right to look at the best films about journalists. While killer features such as Terry Gilliam’s adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) and George Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) didn’t quite make the top 10, it was also tough to leave out the hilarious San Diego newsmen and women in Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy (2004). In films that may not focus purely on journalism but had memorable journalist characters, Margot Kidder is the definitive Lois Lane in her four Superman films and the first two Die Hards would be poorer without William Atherton’s slimy Richard Thornburg.

His Girl Friday (1940)

Director: Howard Hawks

His Girl Friday (1940)

Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell star as the mischievous editor and his ex-wife/best reporter in this definitive adaptation of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s 1928 play, The Front Page.

After much cajoling from Walter Burns (Grant), Hildy Johnson (Russell) agrees to cover one last story about the forthcoming execution of a convicted murderer before she settles down to suburban domestic bliss.

From start to finish, Howard Hawks delivers a lightning-fast screwball comedy with inventive overlapping dialogue comprised of sizzling one-liners. He also initiated an inspired change to the source play by making Johnson’s character a woman after he heard his secretary rehearse the dialogue. Russell, meanwhile, hired her own writer to contribute when she realised Grant had all the best lines. The top-velocity verbal sparring is just as fresh today.

Ace in the Hole (1951)

Director: Billy Wilder

Ace in the Hole (1951)

In Ace in the Hole peak-era Kirk Douglas plays disgraced big-city newspaper reporter Chuck Tatum, a hard-bitten hack eking out a living in Albuquerque, New Mexico, who stumbles onto a sure-fire splash in the shape of a local man trapped in a collapsed cave. Feckless Tatum manipulates the victim’s wife, the morally bankrupt mayor, and a cub photographer for his own ends: the story, always the story.

Billy Wilder’s terrifically cynical (and just terrific) picture has the sharpest of fangs and is loosely based on two real-life events, one of which led to the reporter involved winning a Pulitzer prize. Events conclude differently for Tatum, while there’s something startling about the way a small story is warped out of all proportion. Viewers may even be reminded of contemporary online meme culture where any imbecile with a half-baked viral video can become momentarily popular until the next one shuffles into view.

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Director: Alexander Mackendrick

Sweet Smell of Success (1957)

Alexander Mackendrick’s ironically named classic is fast, jazzy and noisy.

The plot follows NYC press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and his attempts to inveigle himself into the life and columns of gossip hack J.J. Hunsecker (an imperious Burt Lancaster) by breaking up the relationship of Hunsecker’s younger sister and a jazz musician. The pair’s Machiavellian schemes do not quite go according to plan. Falco and Hunsecker’s ruthless double-talk, Elmer Bernstein and Chico Hamilton’s frantic soundtrack and the spontaneous feel of the Manhattan location shooting combine in seductive fashion throughout, giving Mackendrick’s film an unrivalled edge.

Amid the 21st-century hustle of the modern media, the journalistic dependency on PR (and vice versa) is well understood by consumers. Cinema, however, has never before or since portrayed the relationship in such toxic fashion. Many of the films on this list tend towards the darker side of human nature, but this is its most vicious.

La dolce vita (1960)

Director: Federico Fellini

La dolce vita (1960)

It may be episodic, overblown and downright bizarre but La dolce vita is a justified classic of world cinema because it is as beautiful and hilarious as the A-list celeb life it portrays. From stunning, vertiginous opening shots of a helicopter swooping a statue of Jesus over Rome to starlet Anita Ekberg and suave gossip-hack Marcello Mastroianni’s famous frolic in Trevi fountain, Fellini’s masterpiece dazzles. And it contains the big screen’s greatest couple-arguing-in-a-car scene.

Amid the glamour of the money, champagne and gorgeous people, there is a grubbiness and banality to it all. But it would take a will of cast-iron and perversely dour temperament not to be hopelessly seduced come the conclusion. Linguists will also be delighted to discover the origins of the term paparazzi, derived as it is from Mastroianni’s camera-wielding accomplice Paparazzo.

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

Director: Val Guest

The Day the Earth Caught Fire (1961)

The Day the Earth Caught Fire remains one of the most memorable portrayals of British journalists to have reached the cinema.

Fictional Daily Express reporter Peter Stelling (Edward Judd) learns that a simultaneous detonation of nuclear bombs in the US and the Soviet Union has altered the Earth’s climate and pushed the Earth closer to the sun. A state of emergency ensues as the world gets hotter, while boffins battle to save the day and Stelling hits the bar awaiting humanity’s fate. Stelling is an archetypal Fleet Street boozehound chancer, ably assisted by veteran hack Bill Maguire (Leo McKern) and Met Office telephonist Jeanie (Janet Munro), the latter of whom he falls in love with. Together they negotiate their way towards eschatological uncertainty with humour and a few drinks, much like a journalist stuck on a dead-end story.

Guest’s tense, frightening sci-fi is a winner because of its well-observed take on the London news life as was. Indeed, when Stelling and Maguire are spotted leaving their favourite bar in St Bride’s Avenue, this writer recalled his own post-deadline nights in establishments nearby. The film’s visual attempts at verisimilitude include superb widescreen compositions of London, including location shots of a deserted Fleet Street, Chelsea Bridge and St Paul’s Cathedral, which add to its gritty authenticity.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Director: Alan J. Pakula

All the President’s Men (1976)

Following Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974), the third and final part of Alan J. Pakula’s ‘paranoia trilogy’ is as clinical and concise as the best reporting. Having a source as rich and important as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s eponymous non-fiction book certainly helps create a fascinating story, especially when coupled with the clout of Robert Redford, who stars as Woodward and bought the initial rights to the book.

How Bernstein (a wily Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward’s determined and diligent reporting of the Watergate office break-in eventually led to the resignation of disgraced US president Richard Nixon is a fascinating tale, here nimbly told via William Goldman’s script. Both leads sat in on real-life Washington Post news conferences and newsroom sets were built aping the exact dimensions and look of the real thing. The degree of care from all involved is clear – just one reason why the film is revered by journalists and film fans of all professions. 

Network (1976)

Director: Sidney Lumet

Network (1976)

It’s not always prudent to judge a film by its fans, but the fact that Network is acclaimed by both Charlie Brooker and Aaron Sorkin says a lot. Sorkin even namedropped the film and its writer Paddy Chayefsky when collecting his best screenplay Oscar for The Social Network (2010).

Sidney Lumet’s scathing and hilarious look inside a fictional US TV network snagged four Academy Awards of its own. Aside from Chayefsky’s statue for screenwriting, Peter Finch was posthumously awarded best actor while Faye Dunaway and Beatrice Straight picked up best actress and best supporting actress respectively. Finch’s turn as news anchor-turned-prophet Howard Beale is vehemently righteous, while his “I’m mad as hell” rants have been parodied and referenced numerous times since. Dunaway’s performance as ratings-obsessed network head of programming Diana Christensen will seem regrettably familiar to many in modern newsrooms. Network remains an angry and prescient howl into the night that delivers on repeated viewings.

Broadcast News (1987)

Director: James L. Brooks

Broadcast News (1987)

On the surface, Broadcast News is a bit too polished for its own good. There’s very little real peril, sex or danger beyond the fragile emotions of the TV news-crew love triangle at its core. Yet lurking within James L.Brooks’ quick-fire comedy are unforgettable lines of truthful hilarity. An early quip from Albert Brooks’ perspicacious reporter to Holly Hunter’s indefatigable producer sets out the film’s stall with aplomb: “Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive?”

Charming news anchor William Hurt turns heads when he walks into the lively Washington DC office where Hunt and Brooks work, but he’s the least interesting point of the triangle. No matter. Writer-director-producer Brooks is adept at keeping the pace as lively as the gags. Two breathless set pieces involving a short-notice live report and a breakneck rush-to-deadline edit stand out, while Joan Cusack provides sterling support alongside underrated veteran Robert Prosky. For his huge role in developing The Simpsons, James L. Brooks will always be a pop culture hero, but this is another worthy entry on his formidable CV.

Nightcrawler (2014)

Director: Dan Gilroy

Nightcrawler (2014)

Writer-director Dan Gilroy’s murky look at the LA news machine is a bleak affair but extremely entertaining with it. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom like a malignant, more damaged version of the obsessive cartoonist he portrayed in Zodiac (2007). Bloom is a thief, an opportunist of questionable morals and a shrewd camera op with a nose for what the TV stations require to really excite, or maybe just scare, their viewers. Rene Russo is excellent in her role as Nina Romina, a compromised, past-her-best or maybe just always-mediocre director of news at the station where Bloom sells his footage of violent incidents. Riz Ahmed, meanwhile, has his best role since Four Lions (2010) as Bloom’s harassed assistant.

Nightcrawler’s impeccably realised sleaziness amid the ‘glamorous’ TV news world is a superb film about how some journalists and journalism works, but it’s also a great seedy, nocturnal LA film that at times recalls Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004).

Dear White People (2014)

Director: Justin Simien

Dear White People (2014)

Dear White People is a merciless comedy that incisively mocks students and student journalism but far more importantly has plenty to say about racial politics in America today. The story of increasingly tense race relations at a fictitious Ivy League school is refreshingly told via African-American students. Taylor James Williams steals scenes as gay writer Lionel Higgins while Tessa Lynne Thompson’s steely DJ Samantha White is as funny as she is antagonistic. Thompson, also excellent in the undervalued Creed (2015), gets many of the film’s best lines, including: “The minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two. Sorry, but your weed man, Tyrone, does not count.”

An auspicious, vital debut feature from writer, director and co-producer Justin Simien.

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