For several years journalists have been portrayed in cinema just about a notch above fanatical, bomb-toting terrorists. Actually, sometimes the journalist is a notch below, because the terrorist usually has his God on his side.
The journalist? When he enters the frame, it's usually to smear the film's protagonist or impede his ability to save the girl, the day or the world. Think of Peter Parker's editor in the Spider-Man films. As soon as the webbed-one makes his appearance, J. Jonah Jameson (snappily played by J.K. Simmons) instantly puts him on the cover amid headlines like "Web-Slinging Menace Attacks City." Why? It moves papers.
Go back a few years and remember Dustin Hoffman's ethically challenged TV reporter Max Brackett in 1997's Mad City. With lines like, "I'm not asking you to cross the line ... you move the line," it's pretty clear how the filmmakers wanted to portray the media.
Consider the entirety of Paparazzi. It's essentially a movie about Hollywood's feud with the shutterbug media. For a low-budget thriller to attract the likes of Matthew McConaughey, Vince Vaughn and Mel Gibson for cameos, you get the idea that the well of vitriol for today's media runs deep.
Where, oh where are the days of All the President's Men? Hell, I'll even take the sugary days of Ron Howard's The Paper or Billy Wilder's The Front Page, where the working journalist was at least portrayed fairly if not heroically, a time when the search for the truth was a noble pursuit.
Thankfully, two of 2005's better films make a minor return to those days. Good Night, and Good Luck, co-written, co-starring and directed by a man (George Clooney) whose fortune and fame were secured by television, opens in 1958 at an award ceremony wherein the godfather of broadcast journalism, Edward R. Murrow (played with gravitas by David Strathairn), lambastes the direction of television. How can people who control a medium so powerful and so far-reaching choose entertainment over information dissemination, he wonders? How can credible newsmen be replaced by personalities? How can world-changing stories be replaced by frothy sensationalism?
It is a brilliant opening to a film that will, by its end, remind us why a 21st-century audience should care so much about the work of a small CBS news team in the middle of the last century. While in some ways the film focuses squarely on Sen. Joseph McCarthy's Red Scare tactics in the 1950s, it is more about the process of news reporting — the decisions that are made, the compromises between the business of news and its editorial independence, how a story is received and its consequences.
In the end, Good Night bluntly says this: To question our public officials is not unpatriotic. It might, in fact, be the most patriotic thing a person can do. And it's not only the job of the journalist to do so; it's his duty. It is the true patriot act.
And lest anyone have any doubt that handsome George isn't subtextually (although not subtly) comparing what went down in those CBS studios some 50 years ago — witch-hunting for dissidents and anyone who would question the government during a time of war — to the woes of modern-day America, they need only look to one shining quote from the film. Murrow looks directly at the camera and says very simply and poignantly, "We cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home."
Less about the world importance of journalism and more about a reporter's connection to a story is Capote, directed by Bennett Miller.
It started as a germ of an idea for The New Yorker, the kind of intelligent but not landmark journalism that Truman Capote had submitted to the magazine dozens of times before. He simply wanted to understand and report in his intellectual way what atrocities were committed in a small Kansas farmhouse in 1959. But as Capote dug into the story, befriending the local investigator and eventually (upon capture) the two men accused of the crime, he realized a mere magazine clip wasn't the vehicle in which to tell the story.
Capote embarked on what several characters in the film call a new literary genre, the non-fiction novel, and he titled it In Cold Blood. In the film, New Yorker editor William Shawn (played by Bob Balaban) says, in the most understated way imaginable, that Capote's book will change writing itself.
And yet the presentation of Capote as a film character is not so endearing. For a man who pioneered a new breed of reporting, he is shown as being not in love with the story itself, but instead in love with what he can do with it. The story consumed him in that regard and fed, according to the movie, a massive ego that needed continual stoking.
However, by film's end it's apparent that Capote realized no matter how good his story might be, it would come at the cost of human lives. Four people were killed in a farmhouse that night; two more would need to be sacrificed before he could finish his book.
After witnessing the execution of convicted killer and strange soul mate Perry Smith, Capote is shown on the phone with his confidante, Nelle Harper Lee.
"I couldn't have done anything to save them," he offers.
"Maybe not, Truman," Lee replies. "But the truth is, you didn't want to."
Capote concludes that In Cold Blood indeed changed writing. But it also becomes a cautionary tale for the modern journalist. How far can one go into a story that it becomes infected? How far should one go?
While in some ways it's nice to see Capote and Good Night intelligently depict reporters with consciences and codes of ethics, there is an inherent problem: These 2005 films depict historic journalists. Where are the torchbearers for modern media? Where are the reporter good guys in contemporary films? The problem might well be that they're harder to find than Jimmy Hoffa.
The last two films of note to portray modern journalism in its most noble state were The Insider and Veronica Guerin. But The Insider, about 60 Minutes' handling of a big-tobacco whistleblower, was set more than 10 years ago and raised as many questions about the credibility of modern television news as it answered. And Veronica Guerin, about the eponymous journalist who exposed Dublin's underbelly and was killed for it, was set in Ireland, not in the so-called land of liberty.
Where have all the cowboy reporters gone? They've been replaced by what the public sees most when they consider the profession: scoundrels and poseurs.
Take the portrayal of Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) in 2003's Shattered Glass. Based on a true story, it details how a Washington up-and-comer fooled everyone and climbed the journalism ladder all the way to The New Republic by making up quotes and fabricating news for most of his short-lived career.
In film and in the headlines, that's what the public sees when it thinks of the modern print reporter.
What about on the broadcast side? Take your pick among the modern cinematic descendents of Murrow. There's Angelina Jolie and Nicole Kidman as a skin-deep TV reporters in Life or Something Like It and To Die For, respectively. And then there's Will Ferrell's Anchorman that, while very funny, serves as the cinematic antithesis of Good Night, and Good Luck.
Perhaps the popcorn-crunching masses don't want to see hard news at the multiplex. Perhaps Hollywood doesn't want to show it. Or perhaps in show business a good story about real-world journalism is too hard to find. ©