Media portrayal in the movies dates back to the very beginnings of cinema history. And it's got enormous variety. From the fourth estate pulling the strings to rogue publishing magnates and truth-bending criminals, there's no shortage of great movies with journalism content. Judging by box office numbers, this trend will continue as long as journalism is dear to our hearts. Here are my personal favorites.
Ace in the hole (1951)
Chuck Tatum, a disgraced journalist, signs on at a rural newspaper after being fired from his big city job. Dead set on getting back into the limelight, he not only facilitates reality around his stories but even puts the lives of others at stake. Rest assured, we get a biblical ending. But it’s not only the reporter but the willful crowd that creates the sensation. This dynamic is masterfully set in scene here, making this movie both timeless and enlightening. A modern take on the question of how a degenerated society is feeding on tragedy might be „Nightcrawler“ (2014) featuring Jake Gyllenhaal as the artistic crime beat videographer. Before directing, Billy Wilder had worked as a tabloid journalist in Berlin and the subject reappeared later in his career with 1974’s „The Front Page“ remake starring Jack Lemmon and Walther Matthau. One can guess that he probably knew a fair share of ace reporters in his time.
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
Metascore of 100. Chico Hamilton Quintet! Burt Lancaster as the almighty columnist and Tony Curtis as the press agent who’s existence depends entirely on placing names in that column. Hunsecker, the columnist, is relentless and neurotic, he doesn’t do tit for tat, he’s holding court and pulling the strings around Broadway and beyond. As Hunsecker’s oedipal love for his baby sister is threatened by a young musician, he unleashes the canine press agent to take care of the situation. Before long, hustling turns into denigration. Certainly not journalisms finest hour, „Sweet Smell“ is essentially a noir story painted in big city blues, interwoven with a great jazz soundtrack and what may be the most quotable dialogue ever. „Just don’t leave me in a minor key“, begs the ill-fated lover. Do we get a musical ending?
The Network (1976)
Proceeding in a chronological fashion, this bitter jeremiad in sheeps clothing remains a solid all time favorite of movie critics. With an exposition similar to many other dramatizations like „Broadcast News“ or The „Newsroom“, we get a group of likeable cable news old-schoolers pitted against the corporate interests of a faceless investor. After news anchor Howard Beale promises to blow his brains out on public television in response to his ousting, a downward spiral is set in motion as the story branches out from its increasingly allegorical main plot to romance, thriller and weird episodes featuring yet another terrorist group loosely based on the Black Panthers. As Time Out put it, "most of the interest comes in watching such a lavishly mounted vehicle leaving the rails so spectacularly." I disagree. The explosive quality of the story makes it all the more clear that this is a mechanism beyond control, a byproduct of multiple systems clashing and interacting, with war, terror, free market ideology, hubris and infatuation at play – amplified through the media. And it has some of the best written and acted dialogue scenes of cinema history. Tremendous movie. It’s true.
All the President's Men (1976)
Just one year after the Weather Underground dissolved in response to the Vietnam peace accords, president Nixon went down in flames. Everyone knows this adaptation of the Watergate scandal as revealed by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein, who first broke the story about republican eavesdropping on the democratic headquarters based on disclosures from informant Deep Throat – later identified as the high ranking FBI officer Mark Felt. Superb movie, excellent cast, comforting message in light of recent events. The fourth estate will not be silenced.
The Killing Fields (1984)
Cinema has a long standing relationship with the war correspondent. Along with award-winning documentaries about key figures like James Nachtwey, Kevin Carter or Sebastião Salgado we also have a whole genre of feature films gravitating around a conflict through the perspective of foreign actors – films like „The Killing Fields“ (1984), „The year of living dangerously“ (1982) or „Shake hands with the Devil“ (2007). Based on true events, the story follows the path of journalists Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston, who went on to play Charlie Skinner in „The Newsroom“) and Dith Pran as they witness the Khmer Rouge sweeping over Cambodia during the genocide of Year One. The two get separated after a series of hardships, stuck inside the French embassy for weeks on end without running water or developing chemicals. The plot then describes the aftermath of the reports and the eventual escape of Pran to the US.
The film’s epic scope is equaled by a high level of realism and concise storytelling, courtesy of script writer Bruce Robinson. Actual genocide survivor Haing Ngor’s portrayal of Dith Pran earned him an Oscar nomination and he remained a vocal critic of the Khmer Rouge until his assassination in New York City in 1996.Reading tip: Ngor, Haing: A Cambodian Odyssey. New York, 1987.
Broadcast News (1987)
A classic love triangle comedy set in the stimulating environment of a cable network, „Broadcast News“ again introduces the plot device of looming layoffs to stir things up a bit. Mind you, the narrative of integrity vs ratings is with us for the better part of cinema history now. Acknowledging this might add some perspective to the current debate around digital advertising versus the people. Same story, next medium. Other than being a bit too formulaic, „Broadcast News“ is a fun watch with a great cast including Holly Hunter, William Hurt and a cameo by Jack Nicholson.
The Paper (1994)
Henry Hackett, driven both by idealism and the opportunity to impress a prospective employer, wrestles a deadline against all odds in order to „get the facts straight“. While the story itself is rather forgettable, the urgency of daily newspaper business feels palpable and an all-star cast throwing zany one-liners around elevates this underrated gem to modern classic level. With it’s fast pacing and funny dialogue, „The Paper“ borders on screwball territory, yet counteracts this with social awareness and gritty set design.
Shattered Glass (2003)
Based on true events, „Shattered Glass“ chronicles the rise and fall of journalist shooting-star Stephen Glass, who was revealed to have largely fabricated his stories for „The New Republic“. The movie is solid, with Peter Sarsgaard playing the memorably ambivalent character of Michael Kelly, who initially sides with Glass against the publishers wrath despite having his doubts about the thing. The drama unfolds as a fellow reporter from Forbes Magazine calls bullshit on Glass, who responds with total denial and thus seals his fate for good. The internal feud at News Republic and the battle between the magazines add up to a climate of hardcore meritocracy and make for good drama. Glass ain’t the only high profile case of fabricated journalism – remember the troves of fabricated interviews Jayson Blair did for the New York Times or take Tom Kummer and his „artwork“ for Sueddeutsche Magazin. Or the recent case of Joseph Mayton, who again fabricated interviews. We’re bound to see this happen more often or fall for shades of it as metrics other than integrity are pushed to the forefront of our industry.
The Company You Keep (2013)
A former activist belonging to the militant Weather Underground is exposed by an overzealous reporter after living in anonymity for multiple decades. As a manhunt is underway he tries to prove his innocence by reconnecting with old friends. Our journalist hero Ben Shepard employs rather unorthodox methods beyond the inevitable off-the-record banter, like bribing the plate registration office clerk or borderlining on extortion to get his way. After multiple plot jumps and a haphazard finale I’m left with many open questions, chief among them: Why the hell does an obvious labor of love (production cost 2m, all-star cast) that sympathizes with the militant left establish the fact that the Weather Underground murdered people when they actually didn’t? In 1981, a group of Black Panthers and former Weathermen attacked an armored truck, killing three in the process. But that’s as close as history gets.
Journalism sells, with or without sex. That’s a key learning from box office numbers to the movies listed here. This rule does not apply to movies that implicate the Catholic Church. „Spotlight“ was by no means a calculated move – with its controversial subject matter, a rookie director, moderate production budget of 20m and conservative marketing, all bets were on Alejandro Iñárritu’s revenge porn starring a bear and Leonardo DiCaprio to win best movie at the Oscars. But Spotlight had so much on offer: A bold political statement, theatrical intimacy, gutwrenching suspense, stellar performances. Spotlight follows the eponymous investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe along as it unveils large-scale systemic sexual abuse within the Boston Roman Catholic Church. Armed with nothing more than good journalism and a sense of entitlement, we see a bunch of reporters stand up against crooked advocates, one of the largest institutions known to man and of course – their better judgment. The story is delivered with welcome understatement and an almost European aesthetic – if you didn’t notice, this list has an unintentional bias towards American movies. Go figure. Absolutely my favorite movie in the list. And like Martin Baron pointed out, its success could be a boon to investigative reporting worldwide.
The inevitable Snowden biopic. An okay watch, this movie falls short of the grand narrative it tries so hard to convey. The tone meanders between documentary and grotesque, a trademark of director Oliver Stone. „Snowden“ mixes factual political subject matter with pure fiction, itself becoming a device of public opinion. One of the key scenes to understanding the agenda at play shows a video call between Snowden and his adversary Corbin O’Brian, the personified devil ex machina of the surveillance state, bearing more than a slight resemblance to the main antagonist in 1984. O’Brian, towering over Snowden from a monstrous display, reveals with fiendish joy that he need not worry about his girlfriend engaging in infidelity with „that photographer“. It's absolutely hilarious. And troublesome. While this probably never actually happened, movie-goers will take the narrative at face value. Snowden's choice to appear in the final scene further adds to the manipulative effect.
As for journalism content, we get to witness the first contact between Snowden and his confidants and their disputes about the publishing strategy inside The Mira in Hong Kong. We watch Greenwald’s „super-aggressive“ stance on releasing clash with reluctant publishers at the Guardian, who are eventually coerced into action. There’s a lot to talk about here and the narrative isn’t as clear cut during these particualar scenes. So that’s a plus. I included the movie because it describes the events leading up to what is probably the most consequential journalism of the decade.