By John H. Foote
With the war The White House and Trump administration, mostly that moron Trump, has waged on the press, declaring anyone who criticizes the President “fake news”, I started looking at films dealing with the delivery of the news. Be it the written word or television, or investigative journalism, the movies have long been fascinated with the press and delivery of the news, from as far back as The Front Page (1930) and Citizen Kane (1941). The creation of films that have explored reporting, writing, bringing the news to the people has provided an insight for audiences and mainstream America about the work, the intensity of the passion with which the news is reported.
The advances in communications, social media, the internet altered only everything about the news because suddenly all information was at the fingertips of the reporters. So much legwork was saved with the information highway. There is a magnificent scene in All the President’s Men (1976) in which the two reporters go through cards at the Library of Congress to find out who checked certain books out. One by one they go through tens of thousands of cards as the camera pulls up, higher, higher, still higher until the two men look like ants. The metaphor was lost on no one, at the beginning of the Watergate investigation, no one believed Bob Woodward or Carl Bernstein, they were true David’s fighting a Goliath, the Nixon administration. Those type of scenes are what made films about the press what they were, I worry there has been something lost with internet research. That said, Spotlight (2015) did not seem impacted, it was fascinating, the Internet and all.
The common thread running through these films was always the truth. For a true press, we must trust they are reporting to us the truth. Never has the press been more essential than they are at this point in our history. Never before have we needed the truth reported to us because the American president is a pathological liar.
Writing is an isolated, often lonely profession, but one writer will tell you they would give up for nothing. I grew up, like many film critics, reading the reviews of The New Yorkers’ Pauline Karl, and can state I learned more from Karl than in any classroom or lecture hall. When Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel caught fire with their TV program, I preferred Ebert reviews, published annually in a year-end collection. Written criticism offers us a chance to fully explore what we cannot do in a five minute sound byte. I would be dead if I could not write, it feeds my soul. Very few films have the ability to capture that, in fact, my short list was just twenty films, which I brought down to the most significant twelve.
The films I selected run the gamut, from witnessing the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917, through exploiting a man trapped in a cave, the madness and furious energy of television, right through to Watergate and the Pentagon Papers. Directed by Oscar-winning greats such as Warren Beatty, Billy Wilder, Steven Spielberg, James L. Brooks, Michael Mann, Sidney Lumet, Alan J. Pakula, and George Clooney, they represent the very best films I have experienced about reporting the news for both print and television.
The movies have always excelled at fantasy, showing us the impossible, but when necessary, they can present the importance of the truth. That is why they remain vital to us, that fidelity to the truth.
Truman Capote was a gifted writer, the life of whatever party he was attending, a much-feared writer because he might be writing about his inner circle, a shameless name dropper, openly homosexual at a time it was dangerous to be such, and hugely intuitive about a great story. In 1959, the Clutter family, farmers in Kansas were slaughtered by two drifters who had heard there was a lot of cash in the home. They were captured, and the story caught the eye of Capote, who called The New Yorker to see if there was interest. There was, and for the next half dozen years, Capote interviewed the killers, befriending Perry, the more sensitive of the two, and everyone in and around the town. With Capote is Harper Lee (Catherine Keener) in and after the days of her book To Kill a Mockingbird. While writing the story, Capote realizes it would work better as a book, and in writing, it created a new genre, the non-fiction crime novel. Standing out like a sore thumb in rural Kansas, Capote nonetheless charms the people with his stories about Humphrey Bogart and Audrey Hepburn, but his focus and mind is always on the murderers and killings. Knowing he must see it through to the end, he watches, horrified, forever altered as Perry and Dick are hanged. Phillip Seymour Hoffman won the Academy Award for Best Actor for his startling transformation into Capote, capturing that whiny, high pitched voiced to utter perfection. How sad he was gone less than ten years later.
FROST/ NIXON (2008)
Richard Nixon left office in disgrace, destroyed by Watergate, the image of him praying in the White House with Kissinger to be forgiven are scorched into my mind. When a little known British TV host, David Frost (Michael Sheen) invited (and paid handsomely) the former President to a series of interviews, Nixon agreed. He agreed partly because he thought Frost to be a lightweight reporter but more because he wanted to talk, to tell his story. Frank Langella is outstanding as Nixon like Anthony Hopkins brought to the character that wounded soul, but also a great pride, a sense that he was right. Sheen is equally good as Frost, nailing the sense that he was a playboy who loved women, but was ambitious, wanted to be well thought of. Ron Howard directs, brilliantly, stepping away from his often predictable, mainstream fare. Langella, like Anthony Hopkins before him, does not really resemble Nixon, so he internalizes, capturing the essence of the man, that dark, wounded soul. We see he wants to talk, we see he wants to tell Frost everything, and he does just that, at great cost. Everything about the taping is fact, it was recorded, it happened. What happened between takes is based on the witnesses and what they heard and saw. Based on the play, Howard wisely opened it up, allowing for some terrific supporting performances from Rebecca Hall, Kevin Bacon, and Sam Rockwell.
CITIZEN KANE (1941)
Less about the press than about one man using it to manipulate it for his own legend, Citizen Kane is still a powerful work. No longer the greatest film ever made, it was surpassed quite some time ago, but remains the most innovative film before the nineties. It is shocking to remember Welles was just twenty-four years old when he acted in, directed, and wrote this stunning film. Inheriting millions, and a newspaper, arrogant young Kane chooses to run the paper believing he can make a difference. His declaration of principles is a wonderful idea if we did not suspect he himself would break them, one by one, a victim of his own ego and self-righteousness. Welles is superb as Kane, but it is his direction of the film that one still marvels at. Brash, bold, confident, even arrogant, but it works in every frame. One of the screen’s greatest character studies of a man’s downfall, the film makes clear how easy, but how shocking irresponsible it is to manipulate the press. So much has been written about the film, if I were to say more I would risk redundancy.
ACE IN THE HOLE (1951)
A huge flop when it opened, said to be too cruel and cynical, this Billy Wilder classic is now considered a dark masterpiece. Kirk Douglas is a former hotshot, big city reporter ruined by his drinking, now working for a small daily in the west. When he stumbles upon a man trapped in a cave, he exploits the tragedy knowing the story will go national and take him back to the city. Douglas is filled with rage in the part, his hateful character lusting after the trapped man’s wife who welcomes his advances. It is a dark, troubling film, I mean talk about fake news except no one knows except Tatum (Douglas). Though pretending to be close, friends with the trapped man, while leading the men trying to save him into doing it the long way, longer as to keep the story going. Exceptional performances from Douglas and Jan Sterling gave the film its sadistic edge. Kirk Douglas was often maligned as an actor, accused of going over the top. Yet in his best performances, he displays a dark edge, not unlike early De Niro. Douglas had a rare courage, he was fearless in portraying a real shit, and he was good at it. His intensity was often alarming, like a bomb about to go off, he threw his entire being into his work. Without a doubt he deserved to be nominated for Best Actor for his work here, I do not believe he was ever greater.
UNDER FIRE (1983)
Nicaragua in the seventies. Civil war rages against the current government led by a dapper family man who is, in fact, a butcher. Russell (Nick Nolte) is a photojournalist who travels the world shooting images of revolution. In Nicaragua, he gets caught up in the fight against the oppression of the people and crosses a line, for the first time becoming part of the fight. His friends, portrayed by a Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy work in television, and the three forge a strong friendship that is married with a romantic triangle. Using the Bill Robinson murder as its template, Russell captures his friend’s murder on film, gunned down at a stop check by the military, who then seek to cover up the killing of an innocent. The performances are crisp, urgent, superb, with Ed Harris startling as a grinning psychopath for the CIA. Directed with brilliance by Roger Spottiswoode, the cinematography is exceptional and that score, my God that magnificent score is among the most beautiful in movies. Drawing from history and true facts, the film also goes its own way with fiction, and when it collides, it all works. The killing of Hackman is shocking, swift, uncalled for, we cannot prepare ourselves for it because we never saw it coming. Neither did Robinson, who was simply doing his job. With alarming realism, that sequence takes the film in a very dark direction.
BROADCAST NEWS (1987)
A black comedy about the inner working of television, directed and written by Academy Award winner James L. Brooks, creator of Taxi and Cheers among other TV hits. Holly Hunter is crackling Good As Jane, a gifted producer absolutely aware of all that is happening in the world. The anchor, Tom (William Hurt) is a dim-witted by television savvy guy who admires what he does not have, intellect. He even likes the man who most despises him, portrayed with smug fury by Albert Brooks, each man coveting what the other has and they do not. Hunter is a fireball of furious, brilliant, energy as Jane, portrayed with an intensity that is frightening! How can she function going this fast all the time? True she has her daily meltdown where she falls apart weeping, but is that enough? Both men in her life love her, but how could anyone keep up to her? Not physically, but her mind is always racing, always ten steps ahead of everyone else. How does a partner deal with that? Jack Nicholson has a fine cameo as the arrogant chief an hour, who looks down his nose at everyone. Brooks hit it out of the park with this one…again.
The Boston Globe researched and reported, blowing the lid off child abuse in the local Catholic Church, winning the Pulitzer Prize for their articles. Despite locals coming forward, the abuse in the church was always buried, the offenders sent away to other churches without a reprimand. Most of the time both the church and local police simply denied any abuse existed. Michael Keaton heads an outstanding ensemble as the editor of the investigative unit Spotlight. Knowing he once passed over the chance to expose the abuses in the church, he dedicates himself to it this time. What is astonishingly cold is the cool, calculated manner the church casually brushes the abuse of children aside! The KNOW it is happening, and they do nothing. Is inaction not condoning? Beautifully directed by Tom McCarthy, the film won two Oscars, but Best Picture was one of them. The cast is a remarkable ensemble who mesh perfectly together with Keaton and Mark Ruffalo standouts.
GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK (2005)
George Clooney’s love letter to fifties television and network news is a modern masterpiece, far greater than anyone realized upon its release in 2005. Directed, written produced and with Clooney part of an ensemble, the film perfectly captures the essence of the time. It seems strange that this film has gained in importance in the thirteen years since its release, given the Trump Presidency. David Straithern is simply superb as Edward Murrow, the iconic newsman who brought his gifts from radio to the small screen. The manner in which he challenges the vile McCarthy is nothing short of miraculous because he knew the terrible costs. Clooney, Jeff Daniels, Robert Downey Jr., Frank Langella and Grant Heslov are part of an extraordinary ensemble. Beautifully directed by Clooney, shot in glorious black and white. In these dangerous times of Trump telling America to trust him, not the news, was ever a film more necessary? Nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Actor (Strathairn), Best Director (Clooney) and Best Screenplay.
The power of television was never more evident than in this scalding satire written by Paddy Chayefsky, directed by the great Sidney Lumet. One of the few films to be nominated in every single of the major six Oscar categories, Network is acted with blazing realism. Faye Dunaway is superb as the ice queen Diana, who gets aroused talking about ratings, William Holden, the aging head of news in love with Diana, Peter Finch, the anchorman who has slipped into madness, Robert Duvall, the bombastic head of the network, Beatrice Straight as the scorned wife of Holden and Ned Beatty as, well, maybe, God, are all brilliant. The acid-tinged story will chill you to the bone, especially when a group of executives sits around a table deciding to assassinate a man on live TV. Remarkable. I find the foreshadowing of reality programming years before anyone had heard of it, frightening. The film was nominated for a whopping ten Academy Awards, winning three of the four acting awards, and Best Screenplay. Watch the film, watch what it predicts, but most of all watch how their work becomes their life. Diana is told, correctly “you are television incarnate.” It is not the least bit funny, but it is terrifying. Humanity has ceased to exist for her, for many of them. Ratings are all that matter.
In a very early scene in the film, we witness John Reed chasing a weapons wagon in Mexico, chasing history. Later in the film, when the Russian train is attacked, they fight back, and again Reed is in the middle of it, always chasing history. John Reed and his wife Louise Bryant witnessed the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917 as journalists reporting the event to the world. Reed would write his stunning journalistic book Ten Days That Shook the World, which made him the most important journalist on the planet for a few years. Using real-life witnesses shot against a black screen, each giving their remembrances of Reed and Bryant is pure genius, bringing them to us almost intimately. Warren Beatty portrays Reed, also directing, producing and co-writing the film, long his dream project. Both an intimate character study and monumental epic, there are scenes that are magnificently staged and shot. The revolution itself, the train across the desert, epic in size and scope, but it is the love story between Reed and Bryant (Diane Keaton) that is the soul of the film. Jack Nicholson is sexually searing as the wounded playwright Eugene O’Neill, and Maureen Stapleton won an Oscar as anarchist Emma Goldman. An absolute American masterpiece, nominated for twelve Oscars, Beatty won the Academy Award for Best Director, well deserved. That said it is often forgotten just how effective Beatty is as Reed, projecting an intelligence, not unlike his own. Arguing with Reed is pointless because the man is simply too well informed about, not just Russia, but the world. Before TV or radio, there was the written word, and Reed, consumed it, knowing the power it could wield.
THE POST (2017)
Steven Spielberg directed this brilliant film with an urgency that we got at once, for though the film is set in the seventies, it is speaking about today, this moment, every second since Trump was sworn in. Based on true events, the New York Times and Washington Post have managed to get their hands on what became known as the Pentagon Papers, top-secret documents spanning twenty-five years. The topic of these papers is Viet Nam, and just how the government deceived the American people with misinformation, and, well, for lack of a better word, lies. Tom Hanks gives a strong performance as Post editor Ben Bradlee, but the film belongs to Meryl Streep who is astonishing as the recently widowed owner of the Post. She takes a healthy interest in the paper and what it is printing, agreeing with Bradlee the people have a right to know, but she does not care to be jailed for violating a White House court-ordered directive. Spielberg wrings great tension out of the story, tricky because we know the ending, a tribute to his talents as a director. The two leads are exceptional and are surrounded by a near perfect ensemble. The Academy went out of its way to ignore this film, which I cannot figure out why it is remarkable and timely. Maybe the long reach of Trump frightened them? Thank the heavens Spielberg and company did not have that fear.
ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
What still amazes me about this astonishing film, filled with detail is that screenwriter William Goldman turned the outstanding book by reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward into such a brisk, startling narrative. In many ways, it is as much a thriller as it is a film about journalism, as the two Washington Post reporters, low men on the pole stumble onto the Watergate break-in and realize it reaches into the highest end of the government. What they do not expect is it impacts the White House and President Nixon, recently re-elected in a landslide decision. Eighteen months after being sworn in, the digging and deep investigation of Woodward and Bernstein brought down a President, who resigns in disgrace and shame. Robert Redford, chomping at the bit to do more than act, bought the rights to the book before it was published and produced the film, hiring Alan J. Pakula to direct the picture, his single greatest move as producer. The actor then cast himself as Woodward and he and Pakula approached Dustin Hoffman to portray Bernstein. Together the two actors were splendid, giving themselves over to Pakula and the narrative. Veteran actor Jason Robards is simply genius as Ben Bradlee, the hard-nosed editor of the Post, who trusts his gut and stands beside his boys, knowing the future of the Post is on the line. The film was masterfully brought to life by the entire team, though Pakula deserves special mention for doing everything perfectly. Understanding perfectly the amount of information, some of it difficult to process, that he was presenting to his audience, he made the film an urgent thriller. The detail with which the Post offices were created was incredible, though to see it now the first thing that strikes us no computers, typewriters sit on every table. Watching the characters track down key witnesses, some who are terrified to speak to them gives an idea of what they went through in finding the heart of their story. They finally catch a break when a mysterious insider known as Deep Throat agrees to meet and guide Woodward. Hal Holbrook is excellent in this role, the barely concealed fear in his voice very telling. Several scenes have been into my mind but one in particular. In the days before the scanning of books in the Library of Congress, cards with the Dewey Decimal system were utilized. The reporters pour through tens of thousands of cards for the information they seek, as Pakula takes the camera up, up, up until they look like tiny beings. The David and Goliath metaphor was lost on no one. One of the greatest films ever made, a film that makes it clear why truth is paramount. And of course, why we as a society need the press more than we can imagine. Nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director, the film would win four, including Best Supporting Actor for Robards and to Goldman for his exquisite script. Both the National Society Of Film.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.