A brief guide to journalists on film

James Oliver

There is no profession—not even their own—that filmmakers love so well as journalism. While the rest of the world sees hacks as dishevelled scoundrels who'd sell their own grandmother for a story, cinema looks on them as righteous truth-tellers determined to get the message out, troubled by neither deadlines nor the occupational carpel tunnel syndrome of the real world

Marie Colvin of The Sunday Times was one of the few journalists who lived up to that crusading ideal; she risked her life to inform people about what was going on in war zones. Ultimately, that risk was too great: she died in Syria, something commemorated in the new film A Private War, wherein Rosamund Pike plays Colvin. 

She joins the ranks of other journalistic saints immortalised on film, along with some less noble hacks. But, as we'll see, even those less heroic inhabitants of cinematic Grub Street have a swagger that civilians can only envy.

 

It Happened One Night

The urban legend has it that, after Clarke Gable took his top off in this film and showed he wasn't wearing an under-shirt, sales of vests went through the floor as impressionable men sought to imitate the idol.

But if that's true, how many more folk did it inspire to become journalists? Because It Happened One Night makes the newspaper game look like the finest racket there is. What other profession allows you to take off across country (in pursuit of a missing heiress), shout at your boss and—but of course—end up with the gal?

No doubt the thought of all that glamour was a great consolation to those who became journalists because of It Happened One Night and found themselves reporting tedious council meetings for  local newspapers. Probably shivering their bits off too since they weren't wearing vests.

 

His Girl Friday

Do you want to know why movies love journalists so? It's because a great many movies were and are written by former hacks. His Girl Friday was adapted from a play called The Front Page, written by two former Chicago newspaper men called Ben Hecht and Charles McArthur. 

His Girl Friday does for female reporters what It Happened One Night did for the lads; our ace newshound is one Hildy Johnson, played by Rosalind Russell. She's planning on getting married soon and retiring to a life of drab domesticity, much to the chagrin of her editor (and former husband) Cary Grant. He's desperate to keep her doing what she does best—and an especially juicy story helps him to do just that.

 

La Dolce Vita

The newspaper/ cinema symbiosis wasn't just a Hollywood thing; over in Europe, Federico Fellini started out covering the show biz beat in Rome before entering movies (as a direct result of contacts forged during his day job, as it happened). He returned to that world for one of his masterpieces, La Dolce Vita.

This is the impossible glamour of post-war Rome as seen through the eyes of a man covering the cavalcade, Guido Anselmo. He is at the very beating heart of modern society, hobnobbing with the stars, prancing around in fountains and seldom doing any actual, y'know, work. A true role model, then, for writers everywhere.

Read more: A brief guide to the cinema of Federico Fellini

 

Salvador

Journalism isn't all frivolity, though. There's a serious side to it too, and no shortage of films to remind you of it. Oliver Stone's Salvador begins with a pair of hacks from the USA heading to Latin America with vague plans of imitating Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas south of the border.

But such plans are put on hold when they reach El Salvador and discover a country being torn apart by conflict, all with the connivance of Washington. Based on the real life of Richard Boyle, a man who did much to expose what went down in El Salvador, it's a reminder that there's more to journalism than sipping cocktails and looking cool. Alas.

 

Medium Cool

Talking of war zones... Medium Cool offers a different sort of movie journalism, in which fiction and non-fiction co-mingle with intriguing results. Haskell Wexler's film is about a photo-journalist (played by Robert Forster) covering American politics, in this case the Democratic convention. But what happened next wasn't in the script.

This was 1968, when a ruddy great riot broke out, and Wexler's cameras caught most of it. He even put his characters—or rather, the actors who played them—in the line of fire. At one point, the police fire tear gas into the crowd and a voice is heard screaming at the director, “look out Haskell, it's real!” This has been taken by many as a sign of just how real the film was. Except Wexler later admitted that he'd dubbed it on. Fake? Real? What's the difference?

 

All the President's Men

As anyone who's ever read an American newspaper can tell you, they have a rather different approach to journalism than we do in this country: as awful as the British press undoubtedly is, at least it doesn't take itself too seriously. 

All the President's Men represents the American ideal of journalism. True, there's a good story to be told here: how a pair of youthful journalists brought down President Nixon. If you don't understand how VERY IMPORTANT that was, don't worry! The film will instruct you at every turn! 

It's all a bit like reading The New York Times: the information is all there and the lack of trivia is, in its own way, impressive. It's just that you're left wanting to cleanse your palate with the Daily Mirror or something. Why, the journalists here don't even fiddle their expenses.

 

Citizen Kane

Not an obvious choice, but the erstwhile Greatest Film Ever Made™ has plenty to say about the newspaper trade; its main character—“hero” is stretching it a bit—starts as the crusading proprietor as a New York daily but his principals are abandoned as circulation rises. 

It was famously based on a real-life figure, publisher William Randolph Hearst and, if nothing else, you have to admire writer/ director Orson Welles for making a film that deliberately tweaked the nose of one of the most powerful men America. Rather less admirable is that he did so by insulting Hearst's partner, Marion Davies, who was so much more vivacious—and loving—than the equivalent character here.

 

Park Row

Samuel Fuller is another ex-hack turned Hollywood player and Park Row is his salute to the early days of his former profession, set in the lawless 1880s, when rival newspapers duked it out for supremacy on the newsstands and the term “circulation wars” was to be taken literally. 

If the sensational aspects are what sell the picture—Fuller was a tabloid man and knew the importance of a good hook—there's a genuine love for the whole business, from gathering the story to setting the hot metal type. If it's possible to get high on printer's ink, that's exactly what Sam Fuller does here.

 

Shock Corridor

And because you can never have too much Sam Fuller, here’s another of his bulletins from the front lines, albeit a rather darker one than Park Row. It's about a prize-hungry reporter who hears about a murder at a psychiatric hospital and feigns madness to himself committed, with the intention of solving it and reaping the rewards. Only it isn't a Pulitzer he gets for his troubles...

It's more an indictment of wider society than it is a critique of journalistic malfeasance—the Asylum makes for a great allegory for America, plagued by paranoia, racial tension and terror of The Bomb—but it's too good to be left out on that account, not least because there's plenty of journalistic malfeasance too.

 

Ace in the Hole

If Shock Corridor offers a polite corrective to the likes of All the President's Men, then Ace in the Hole takes the notion of goody-two shoes journalism behind the bike sheds and brutally sets about it with a length of wood with a nail sticking out of it. And a rusty nail, at that.

This may well be the most cynical film ever made by a major Hollywood studio and it's certainly the most unsympathetic depiction of the gentlemen of the press. It's set in the back of beyond, the only place disgraced hack Chuck Tatum can get a gig. He's looking for a return to the big-leagues and when he finds a story that offers just that—a chap stuck down a mine—he ruthlessly exploits it for all its worth, never mind that the man's life is in the balance.

The thing is, since Chuck is played by Kirk Douglas, you can never quite hate him as much as he deserves—even when trying to criticise its favourite profession, Hollywood just can't help itself...

Print media is in decline now, thanks to the internet and all that. There's been a couple of movies about “New Media” (like The Fifth Estate, all about Ecuador's least favourite houseguest Julian Assange) but bloggers and their ilk have nothing like the panache of even a middling movie hack.

So it's very much to be hoped newspapers survive. The idea of movies without journalists is unthinkable...

 

Read more: a brief guide to films about writers