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Twilight of the gods

The best newspaper movie of all time
The best newspaper movie of all time
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.The Associated Press
Thursday, September 07, 2017 12:01 am

It seems strange that, after all these years as a journalist, I've never shared a list of my favorite newspaper movies. Now is probably a good time, while people even still know what a newspaper is. 

As usual with lists, I'm reluctant to call these movies "the best," because I don't really have the qualifications to make that judgment. I suppose I'm better suited to make that call for newspaper movies than for most categories, given my background, but I'm still more comfortable with "favorites."

Except for the first one on the list, which I consider the greatest newspaper movie of all time (oops, guess I did make that call), they are in no certain order. Rather, they're just in the order I thought of them, which may or may not indicate their position on my favorites' scale.

All of these movies overly dramatize the newspaper business, and, with a couple of notable exceptions, romanticize it, too (although none actually glamorize it quite the way "All the President's Men" did). But most of them get the spirit of newspapering right, even if they get some of the nuts and bolts wrong (and no movie got them wronger than "Absence of Malice").

There will be a quiz later: Except for "Citizen Kane," these movies all focus primarily on one major driving force of the newspaper business. What is it?

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Deadline USA (1952). The star of my favorite movie overall ("Casablanca," even when it's disguised as "Key Largo" or "To Have and Have Not") is also the star of my favorite newspaper movie. While the newspaper is being sold out from under them by the founder's greedy family (to a competitor who plans to close it down), Bogey and his staff chase one last story of abuse and corruption despite the threats of the gang lord they're threatening to unmask. The paper is sold, but their exposé is bannered across the last Page 1 they'll every print. Bogey has one of the greatest ending lines ever (especially to us ink-stained wretches): "That's the press, baby. The press. And there's nothing you can do to stop it." Sigh. If only.

Call Northside 777 (1948). Jimmy Stewart is a reporter who reopens a 10-year-old murder case at the behest of a mother who insists her convicted son is innocent of the crime. The reporter is skeptical at first but begins to change his mind the more he looks into the story. The closer he gets to the truth the more resistance he gets from the police and authorities who don't want to be proved wrong. As one who has been bombarded with technological change ever since I started in the business, I appreciated the way a new technology actually helped Stewart in his quest. The one piece of evidence that proved a key witness was lying came in a photograph that was sent from one city to the next by one a them newfangled Associated Press wire photo machines. Dang.

The Paper (1994). Michael Keaton is a city editor in this paean to metropolitan tabloid journalism with its giant photos and lots of exclamation points on the Page 1 headlines (the genre that gave us "Headless Body In Topless Bar"). The paper has its story of two black youths arrested for murder ("Gotcha!" the headlines says). The higher-ups want to go with the story, but Keaton wants to keep digging. He finally gets proof that the two are innocent about the time the presses start running with the wrong story. One of the truly great "Stop the presses!" moments in movie history.

Spotlight (2015). The newest on the list, and proof that there's still a little life in the profession. A team of Boston Globe reporters doggedly pursues the story of the Catholic Church's child-abusing priests scandal. Some of my favorite newspaper movies are from the robust era when newspapers truly went at each other with wild abandon, and I can't say how true to life they are. But the disreputable-scoundrels reporters — almost any drunk or reprobate could be pulled off the street and given a beat —  have achieved mythic status, so who cares? But this is from my era, and the details matter. I've never worked on a big-city paper, but this seems true to me, and some crusty old farts who have been on the big metros say there is not a false note — a great movie. As an aside, the team is led by Michael Keaton, the only actor to star in two of my favorite newspaper movies.

The Front Page (1931) and its best remake, His Girl Friday (1940). Both movies focus on Hildy Johnson, a driven reporter out to scoop the competition by getting an interview with a Communist condemned of murder who has escaped the hangman's noose. In both movies, Hildy is getting married and giving up the news business, much to the dismay of his conniving managing editor who will do anything to keep Hildy on the payroll. But in "The Front Page," Hildy is a guy, and in "His Girl Friday" she's a woman who was once romantically involved with the conniving editor. Both are bitingly funny, but Front Page leans a little more on the scathing satire and Friday goes more for the zingy one-liners. The reporters in these movies are lazy, good-for-nothings who'd just as soon make up a story as find one — until a real story comes along; then they're ferocious.

All the President's Men (1976). OK, this is the really big one, right, the one that got so many of my generation into the business? And a lot of them should have been insurance adjusters or public relations flacks selling soap, but how could they not be lured by a profession that brought down the damn president, man!? It of course tells the story of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, who uncovered the details of the Watergate scandal that led to President Richard Nixon's resignation. Sometimes I feel like this movie shouldn't even be on the list because it so overstates the role of the press in the scandal — it would have unfolded just the way it did without The Washington Post, you know? But sometimes, I'd put it near the top of the list because it gets so much right about the day-to-day life of the reporter — tedious day after tedious day punctuated by brief bursts of intoxicating adrenaline. It also showed an ethical line reporters shouldn't cross, which I think most people missed. Woodstein got part of their story by enticing members of a grand jury to break the law by revealing what went on. It put those people in legal jeopardy without risking anything for the journalists. Not cool at all.

It Happened One Night (1934). With Clark Gable as the enterprising reporter who needs a big story to save his job and Claudette Colbert as the spoiled, runaway heiress he stumbles onto on a bus ride. He latches onto her without telling her what he is and, naturally, he falls for her and has to choose between her and the story. It's basically a romantic comedy and a road trip movie, so there are just a few fleeting scenes set in a newsroom. It's the movie on my list that has the least to do with actual newspapering, but it's goody fun. It was the first movie to win all five major Oscars (movie, director, screenplay, actor, actress), but Gable and Colbert both hated every minute of shooting it and thought it sucked. Generally credited with being the first screwball comedy, which, come to think of it, could describe a good newspaper career.

Citizen Kane (1941). This one of course is not about the day-to-day operations of newspapers the way so many of the other films on the list are. It's the story of Charles Foster Kane, the corrupt owner of a media empire (which meant in those days mostly newspapers with a little radio thrown in) who used his power to create events and manipulate public opinion. It was (not very) loosely based on the life of publisher William Randolph Hearst, who, legend has it, once told artist Frederic Remington to be ready to illustrate a war and told him, "I'll furnish the war." That is almost certainly a myth, but the man did have enormous power and never hesitated to abuse it. In one of the greatest examples of irony in movie-making history, he in fact used that power to condemn and then repress "Citizen Kane." Now considered by many critics to be the best movie of all time, it didn't even win the best picture Oscar when it came out.

Ace in the Hole (1951).  What happens when the relentless pursuit of a story becomes something evil instead of a noble calling? Kirk Douglas starts as a former big-city reporter stuck in the sticks who decides to exploit a story about a man trapped in a cave to re-jump start his career.  He takes over and prolongs the rescue effort, feeding stories to major newspapers. He creates a national media sensation and milks it for all it is worth (can you say "media circus"?) until things go terribly wrong. From Billy Wilder, who made casual cynicism look easy. If "Spotlight" and "All the President's Men") are the movies that make us proud to be journalists, this is the one that makes us absolutely cringe.

Foreign Correspondent (1940). If there can't be a movie list without Billy Wilder on it (I just made that up), there can't be one without Alfred Hitchcock, either (OK, I made that up, too). Displeased with the reporting he's getting out of his overseas correspondents on the eve of World War II, a publisher sends a sports reporter to look at the explosive European situation with fresh eyes. (A pause here while we marvel at the fact that a newspaper had multiple correspondents overseas and scratch our heads at the dispatch of a sports reporter to cover real news. I mean, have you seen what happens when a sports guy tries to talk politics? Think Keith Olbermann.) Obviously not one of Hitch's best movies and outside his usual genre, but it moves along nicely, and, yes, the sports guy gets the story, which means readers of that particular newspaper won't be (or at least shouldn't be) terribly shocked when war breaks out.

Zodiac (2007). In the late 1960s/early 1970s, a San Francisco cartoonist becomes an amateur detective obsessed with tracking down the Zodiac Killer, an unidentified individual who terrorizes Northern California with a killing spree. First we have a sports writer as the hero, and now a cartoonist? This is getting a little bit out of hand, don't you think? A lot of people were obsessed with finding Zodiac, including newspaper people and police personnel, but the case became an obsession with the cartoonist until it took over his life. And it was one of those stories where there was none of what the cool kids call "closure." The good guys knew who the killer was, but they could never conclusively prove it, and he died without ever confessing or being charged.

-30- (1959). -30-, of course, was what reporters used to put on their stories instead of "the end." Don't ask me why. There are a million theories but no real answer, which sort of goes against the spirit of this post, huh? Anyway, this movie stars Jack Webb, who shines by playing . . . Jack Webb, the way he always did. But instead of the brusque, laconic, all-business, humorless police detective, this time around he is the brusque, laconic, all-business, humorless newspaper managing editor. If the movie were set later than 1959, surely there would have been a scene in which he said, "Just the fax, ma'am." The IMD blurb says: "A managing editor of a LA newspaper must put together headlines for the next day in a way that'll attract the potential readers, deal with hectic going-ons at the workplace and have a serious talk with his wife about her wish to adopt." In this particular newspaper day, there's so much going on you can't keep track. In a real day on a real newspaper, of course, not much happens except you will see a lot of folks on the telephone. This is trite melodrama at its most trite, but, what can I say? It's the trite melodrama of my imagined life on the front lines.

The Story of G.I. Joe (1945). Burgess Meredith stars not as G.I. Joe, but as the guy who told his story to the American people, Indiana's own Ernie Pyle. He was the journalistic hero to a whole generation of wannabe reporters, you know, before "All The President's Men" came along and everybody wanted to be Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman and meet mysterious strangers in parking garages. Pyle went where the real action was, the front lines with American troops fighting and dying for the American ideal. These days, we would call him an "embed," but the crucial difference was that Ernie was on our side instead of affecting some sort of divine neutrality or actually secretly rooting for the other side. And he died in pursuit of his stories, in the process letting the American people know how the war was affecting the flesh-and-blood soldiers they knew. That's journalistic dedication, folks.

Absence of Malice (1981). When a prosecutor leaks a false story that liquor warehouse owner Paul Newman is involved in the murder of an union head, the man's life begins to unravel. So the man sets a trap for the prosecutor and the press to trick them into a false story that will hurt them as much as they have hurt him. He doesn't know who will go for the juicy story, but he knows someone will, and it turns out to be a reporter (Sally Field) he's romantically involved with. This movie was written by a former newspaperman, so it gets some things right, but it gets one big thing spectacularly wrong. In the movie, it's the reporter who is cautious about going too soon with the story (or going at all with a story that will hurt some innocent people), and it's the editor who pushes her on to reckless abandon. In real life, it's the reporters straining at the leash and the editors trying to hold us back. Viscerally rewarding for the way someone supposedly helpless against the threat of corrupt power brings the mighty to their knees. Wait a minute, isn't that supposed to be our job? (And it's the cautious reporter, not the reckless editor, who gets fired. At least they got that part right.)

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My sister wondered if I'd even get enough movies to make a Top 10 list — "How many newspaper movies have there even been, anyway?" she asked. But I got up to 14 before I thought it was enough, and I could have gone on a lot further, believe me. I'm sure some people would disagree with some of my choices and add their own. That's the beauty of doing a "my favorites" list. You can quibble with my opinion of the best, but you can't argue with what I like.

I still have room and energy, though, for my least favorite newspaper movie of all time (I'm sure there were far worse, but this was a big-budget movie — for its time — with big stars, and in my opinion it was all wrong about what a newspaper should be): 1958's Teacher's Pet with Clark Gable and Doris Day. Gable is a hard-bitten metro editor and Day teaches a night-school class in journalism and had a father who is revered in the industry for winning the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing (you see why I could like this movie, even though I don't) while publishing his small daily paper. In the course of pursuing Day romantically, Gable looks into her father's career and has the painful duty of informing her that her father wasn't so hot after all. Yes, his editorial page sang with lofty words about important things, but his news pages was full of trivial crap about who was visiting with what neighbor and what the high school was serving for lunch.

But, to me, that is exactly what makes a  good newspaper. On the editorial page, you shoot for the moon and stand for truth and justice. And in the news pages, you try to touch people where they live, which means you print what is important to them, even if it seems trivial to the outside world. It doesn't make his case (although the script writers obviously think it does) when Gable, while posing as a would-be journalist in Day's class, whips out a story that is just absolutely awful by anybody's standard. He takes a simple story about the body of a young man being found and turns it into a few maudlin, tear-jerky paragraphs about the modern diseases of poverty and neglect — the kind of opinionated crap you'd never find in a real news story except on TV or the Internet. (Others disagree, but they can put it on their own blogs.)

QUIZ ANSWER: Of course, it's "Get the story, get the story, get the story." The powers that be may be against you and try to stop you at every turn, but you get the story. Your newspaper might be disappearing around you, but you get the story. You might get it wrong and have to issue an embarrassing correction, but you get the story. You might get it wrong and be fired, but you get the story. You might get it right and be fired, but you get the story. Your home life might fall apart, but you get the story. You might turn into an obsessive monster who doesn't care about anything else, but you get the story. You might even have to put your life on the line, and you might not come back alive, but you get the story.

You get the story.

A lot has been written about what will come next after newspapers, what will be good, what will be bad, what new we will get and what we will lose. Some of it has been smart and some of it has been stupid. But it all needs to be said, because I don't think we know what comes next, and the need to know propels us all.

My sense is that we will be missing that overarching hunger to get the story, to find out what's happening and tell it to as wide an audience as possible. It's been said that in this new digital age, we are all journalists. And I guess that is true. We all have the ability to do what only people with a $1 million press could do, find out stuff and spread it to a potentially worldwide audience.

But in another sense, none of us will be journalists, at least in the sense the word has been commonly used. Mostly what we will have are millions of people spreading lots of tiny stuff to very small audiences. We'll have the electronic version of gossiping over the backyard fence. We will have lots of lots of small voices whispering. I will miss the large voices shouting.

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