Newspaper Movies: Is the Internet Killing a Classic Movie Genre?

It’s pretty trite by now to say the internet has revolutionized the world. Yes, it’s true that we all now know that the internet has changed the way we communicate, shop, learn and meet people. But it’s not all good. Much like Walmart, the internet has cost society many things as well as bringing abou certain advantages. One of the things that I fear the internet may do away with is the newspaper movie.

The newspaper movie is a time honored tradition in Hollywood. In fact, it’s probably safe to say that the image of the newspaper reporter that most people had for most of the last century was shaped and defined by film representations. Some of the greatest movies of all time were newspaper movies. It’s hard to imagine that too many terrific flicks are going to be made about internet reporters.

I just can’t imagine any scene showing a reporter surfing the internet for information being quite as haunting as that scene in All the President’s Men when the reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein are forced to flip through thousands of index cards inside the Library of Congress as the camera literally ascends to the ceiling above them, dwarfing their bodies inside the cavernous room.

Well, at least we have the newspaper movies that have already been made. And, further, at least we have Turner Classic Movies, the only network on which you will probably find them. Any discussion of newspaper movies has to begin with The Front Page. Newspapers movie discussions must begin here because The Front Page has been remade more often than Beau Geste. And the damnable thing is that almost every version has merit. Almost. The Front Page first hit theater screens in 1931 with one of those killer casts that just don’t seem to exist anymore. Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien, Edward Everett Horton and Mae Clark, the girl into whose face Jimmy Cagney pushes a grapefruit in The Public Enemy. Over 40 years later it was remade under the same title with an equally impressive cast: Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, Susan Sarandon, and Carol Burnett. In addition to these two there have been three television versions and an unfortunate updating to a television news setting in the instantly forgettable Burt Reynolds movie Switching Channels. Add in a Broadway musical and you’ve got one of the most well known stories of all time. But the finest adaptation of The Front Page doesn’t even go by that name.

In His Girl Friday, one of the main characters changes sex, turning up as a woman played by Rosalind Russell. She and Cary Grant star in what may be the fastest talking movie of all time. If you’re a fan of Gilmore Girls, you’ll instantly feel right at home inside this movie. The plot of the movie…well, it’s a screwball comedy so who really cares? The point is that it does give a fascinating glimpse inside the world of the newspaper business. At least the world of the newspaper business according to Hollywood. His Girl Friday was ranked in the top twenty a few years ago when the American Film Institute counted down the top 100 American comedies of all time. It’s a masterpiece, even if it isn’t necessarily the most realistic newspaper movie of all time.

America’s loss of innocence can be traced back to…well, about a thousand different events; everything from the Civil War to Pearl Harbor to Watergate (more on that later) to 9/11. One thing is for sure, Americans are much more cynical now than they were fifty years ago, right? And reporters are far more cynical than they were fifty years ago, right? Well, maybe not so much. If reporters today were as cynical as they were fifty years ago, it wouldn’t have taken three years and 2000 American deaths to start asking questions about such things as faulty WMD intelligence and NSA spying programs. And if Americans really were more cynical now, there’s no way George W. Bush could have gotten re-elected, no matter how many lies Karl Rove spreads as fact.

There hasn’t been a movie made in the last two decades that is anywhere near as cynical as the 1957 movie Sweet Smell of Success. Some might take exception to referring to this as a newspaper movie since we only get one brief glimpse inside a newspaper office. But the whole movie revolves around the incredible power maintained by the country’s most famous newspaper columnist JJ Hunsecker. Hunsecker is based on real-life mover and shaker Walter Winchell and one can only imagine that in real life he must have been even more obnoxious than the character played to perfection by Burt Lancaster. Of course, when did Burt ever not play a character to perfection?

But the real surprise of this movie is Tony Curtis. Anyone who has ever watched Some Like it Hot or The Great Race knows that Curtis is a fine light comedian, but his dramatic performance here is a revelation. (Stunning is the only word that can adequately sum up how he not only didn’t win an Oscar for this, but wasn’t even nominated! I mean, Marlon Brando gets a nomination for Sayonara, but Tony Curtis is shut out for The Sweet Smell of Success? What’s up with that?) To say that Tony Curtis’ PR man Sidney Falco is one of the slimiest characters in film history is an understatement. Were it not for the humanity and bizarrely sympathetic qualities that Curtis brings to the role, Falco would be in the top ten list of most unlikable movie characters of all time. Of course, he would still be ranked lower than JJ Hunsecker himself.

There is such a pervasive cynicism running through this movie that at times it is almost impossible to watch. Falco will do anything to get his clients’ publicity and Hunsecker uses his power to make Falco run through a series of hoops, constantly humilating him while also managing to reveal his utter dependence on people like Falco. Hunsecker is such a powerful force in the newspaper business, in fact, that he lords over even powerful Senators. The plot of this movie revolves around the machinations of Hunsecker and Falco to break up the relationship between Hunsecker’s sister and her jazz guitarist boyfriend. (Fans of the comic strip Bloom County will get a laugh the first time they hear the name of the guitarist, Steve Dallas.) If you get the sense that Hunsecker’s feelings for his sister verge into incestuous waters, you won’t be alone. At least, that’s what the plot seems to be about. There are surprises coming your way and I won’t spoil them. Suffice it to say that the ending of this movie would be deemed too cynical by today’s standards. (And, besides, it would be incredibly difficult to come up with a video game idea to spin off from it.)

The greatest newspaper movie of all time is, not coincidentally, the one that is probably most truthful in its depiction of the drudgery of good reporting. America reached its depth of cynicism during the early 70s amid reports of secret bombings in Cambodia, student protestors being shot at by National Guard troops and a seemingly innocuous burglary at a famous Washington DC landmark. The true accomplishment of All the President’s Men is that it isn’t a cynical movie at all, but rather a celebration of all that is great about America.

If America only had a Woodward and Bernstein now. The only real differences between Nixon and Bush is that Nixon was doing things far less horrific than Bush, and that American reporters were interested in uncovering the things Nixon was doing and holding him accountable. Neither the Congress nor the courts nor the American media nor a large segment of the American people seem particularly interested in getting to the core of how George W. Bush is corrupting the Constitution, much less in making sure he is punished. There will never be an All the President’s Men that recounts how reporters helped bring down a President who was violating the law. Thank God then we have the original.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman lead the cast, but that’s only scratching the service. I’m willing to go on record by saying this movie features probably the greatest ensemble performance in the history of film. From Jason Robard’s Oscar-winning turn as Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee right on down to Robert Walden’s memorable cameo as Donald Segretti, there isn’t an actor in this movie who is not at the top of his or her game. The scenes where the Post editors meet to discuss which stories will make it into the paper are not only a clinic in good acting, but also (probably) as truthful a glimpse into the world of the newspaper editing business as we’re likely to get.

All the President’s Men doesn’t glamorize the profession. Amazingly, it manages not to be tedious itself as it shows the tedious legwork that must be done by investigative reporters. There is a scene early on showing Redford as Woodward-who somehow managed to make the trip in real life from dedicated reporter to Bush shill-making a series of phone calls from his desk as he launches his effort to investigate what really happened. This isn’t the kind of newspaper movie where characters are beating up guys to get information or running away from guys trying to beat up them. This is as real as it gets. And, more than that, it’s a celebration of American liberty. The Constitutional crisis that was created around the Watergate cover-up may pale in comparison to the Constitutional crises we’re experiencing today, but at the time it stood as perhaps America’s finest hour. We had a President firm in the conviction that he was above the law and yet tanks were not required to roll through the streets in order to remove him from office. Basically, all it took was a couple of reporters willing to invest in some serious phone time.

Since we don’t have any reporters today who are willing to do that, I’m afraid it’s going to take tanks to remove the current criminal from the Oval Office.

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