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The Top 20 Movies About Journalism, Ranked: Part 2

| Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Ellis Riojas | The Observer

Yesterday I ran through numbers 10-1 on my ranking of the top 20 movies about journalism. I finish my list today with stops in Russia, the Watergate Hotel and, to start the countdown, the San Francisco Bay.

  1. “Zodiac” (2007)

David Fincher’s “Zodiac” is a rarity amongst journalism films: the story at the heart of the movie never gets broken. Instead, the Zodiac Killer goes uncaught, his cryptic letters taunting San Francisco reporters and criminal investigators alike for years after the case goes cold. Though Fincher and screenwriter James Vanderbilt theorize about the Killer’s identity — as suspect Arthur Lee Allen, John Carroll Lynch’s paternal charm curdles into something genuinely disquieting — they are more concerned with the effect of the never-ending case has on the people it entrances. It’s hard to find a better triumvirate of lead actors than the one driving “Zodiac:” Robert Downey Jr.’s crime reporter Paul Avery, Mark Ruffalo’s police inspector Dave Toschi and especially Jake Gyllenhaal’s obsessive political cartoonist Robert Graysmith all take turns dominating the screen, showing off each actor’s respective strengths. Even with a new break in the Zodiac case coming in 2016, this movie is best left as an unsolved mystery. 

  1. “Salvador” (1986)

It took a few unremembered horror movies for Oliver Stone, hotshot screenwriter of “Scarface” and “Midnight Express,” to become Oliver Stone, generational auteur and one of film’s few honest-to-God provocateurs. The first truly “Oliver Stone”-style film he directed himself was 1986’s “Salvador,” a polemic targeted at U.S. military involvement in El Salvador’s bloody 13-year civil war. Long before he became an increasingly tiresome Twitter firebrand, James Woods earned an Oscar-nom as photojournalist Richard Boyle, an opportunistic American who drops into El Salvador looking for an easy profit and instead becomes swept up in the rebellion against the fascist militia running the country. “Salvador” isn’t even Stone’s best movie of 1986 — that would be that year’s eventual Best Picture, “Platoon” — but as an introduction to his worldview and dynamic film-making, it remains as fresh as it was almost forty years ago. 

  1. “Reds” (1981)

Warren Beatty is a student of classic Hollywood, and that inclination was never more apparent than with “Reds,” his greatest moment in the director’s chair. A three-hour-plus moral epic in the vein of “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Spartacus,” “Reds” spans continents and decades to tell the story of journalist John Reed and his two true loves: fellow writer Louise Bryant and Communism. As director, writer and star, Beatty grants Reed’s life a sense of grandeur befitting the movie’s runtime; “Reds” is at its most human, however, in its more intimate moments, especially during the interstitial documentary interviews with “witnesses” who were real-life compatriots of Reed and Bryant. In these moments, “Reds” becomes the rare narrative feature that serves as a piece of journalism on its own. 

  1. “Citizen Kane” (1941)

If this list were simply ranking the best movies with journalism in them, rather than “journalism movies,” “Citizen Kane” would be at the top — Orson Welles’ finest moment remains a feat of pure film-making without parallel. In fact, the film’s acclaim has probably overshadowed its plot and attendant journalistic bona fides; the movie’s framing device, about a newsreel journalist conducting interviews to discern the fiercely hidden private life of recently deceased newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane, is often passed over in favor of discussions about Gregg Toland’s superlative cinematography and Welles’ scorched-earth performance. In satirizing the life of William Randolph Hearst, Welles inadvertently gave his movie continued relevance in the age of Twitter — to that end, cinema’s best joke about journalism comes from Kane’s doomed governmental campaign. With the ballots coming in and the forecast looking gloomy, Kane’s newspaper staff makes the decision to switch from one headline to another. Out goes “KANE ELECTED!” Its replacement: “FRAUD AT POLLS!”

  1. “To Die For” (1995)

“You aren’t really anybody in America if you’re not on TV.” This line, from the impeccably named Suzanne Stone, serves as a statement of purpose for both her and Buck Henry’s icy script. This satire from indie stalwart Gus Van Sant features a murderer’s row of pre-fame future stars: Nicole Kidman, Casey Affleck and Joaquin Phoenix (the latter mumbling his way through an absolutely hilarious scene about meteorology that I am probably not allowed to link to here). Kidman shines as Stone, a wannabe news anchor who orchestrates a murder alongside the high school students at the center of one of her segments. The deadpan humor of the documentary testimonials serves as an unlikely antecedent to the “mockumentary” craze of the mid-2000s; in a perverted way, one can draw a direct line between the blind (and blonde) ambitions of Stone and “Parks and Rec”’s Leslie Knope alike. 

  1. “His Girl Friday” (1940)

Howard Hawks wanted to make the fastest movie of all time. In order to do so, he decided to take the previous record holder — a 1931 version of Ben Hecht’s stage play “The Front Page” — and turn it into the screwball comedy to end all screwball comedies. Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell play a divorced editor-reporter pair who take on one last story together — unsurprisingly, sparks fly. Packing 192 pages of script into 91 minutes of film and averaging 240 words per minute (for comparison, the average human conversation clocks in at around 140), “His Girl Friday” finds a way to make its dialogue replicate the mechanical rhythms of the typewriters and mimeographs of the newsrooms at the film’s heart. 

  1. “Ace In The Hole” (1951)

Most journalism movies — “All The President’s Men,” “Spotlight,” even “His Girl Friday” — convince themselves and the audience that journalism is always a force for the greater good. Billy Wilder and “Ace In The Hole” disagree. Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a disgraced New York City reporter who finds his way to Albuquerque, gets a job with a local paper and proceeds to dunk on everyone and everything in his direct vicinity. While driving through the Southwest — “a sun-baked Siberia,” in Tatum’s words — he encounters a man trapped in a cave-in and smells blood. Immediately taking over the rescue operation from the local authorities, Tatum foregoes the drilling method that would free the man in 12 hours in favor of a slower procedure. With this extra time, he and his photographer begin to charge entrance to the mine, a move that creates a tent city replete with fairground games and musical performances — a literalization of the media circus. The film’s tragic ending has an outsize importance: Tatum’s moral doom seems to portend a similar fate for American journalists at large. 

  1. “Broadcast News” (1987)

The most heart-pounding journalism sequence on film isn’t set at the Watergate hotel, or while an intrepid reporter tries to publish a story under increasingly dangerous conditions. Instead, it’s when Joan Cusack, hair coiffed in the most ‘80s style imaginable, ducks and dives her way through a Washington, D.C. news station to get a brief video snippet onto a national broadcast anchored by a smirking Jack Nicholson. Written and directed by rom-com impresario James L. Brooks, “Broadcast News” is ostensibly a love triangle — albeit one set in news television directly prior to the advent of 24-hour cable news. William Hurt and Albert Brooks are both inspired as a pair of rival reporters vying with each other for air time and the affections of their producer, but it’s Holly Hunter — as that producer — who owns this movie. In a career full of overachievers, her Jane Craig is the crown jewel, a performance that grows deeper and more vivacious with every watch. 

  1. “All The President’s Men” (1976)

The platonic ideal of the journalism movie. Everyone knows the story, even if they haven’t actually sat down to watch it: Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, intrigued by a break-in at the Watergate Hotel, unearth a cover-up that goes all the way up to the White House. The film is much more eminently watchable than some of its fellow ‘70s classics (here’s looking at you, “Rocky”), a distinction that the movie owes to its superb technical pedigree. “Godfather” cinematography wizard Gordon Willis photographs the film with his usual mastery, and the film’s newsroom set was painstakingly reconstructed from the actual Washington Post floorplans. That meticulous appreciation for the heroism of Woodward and Bernstein, as well as Post editor Ben Bradlee, is what drives the movie — coming out in April of 1976, “All The President’s Men” was perfectly positioned to ride out the empty optimism of the nascent Carter era. Our best years were yet to come, the movie posited, and it was tireless truth-seekers like Woodward and Bernstein that would lead us there. “All The President’s Men” was the greatest journalism movie of all time — for all of seven months. 

  1. “Network” (1976)

In many ways, “Network” is the photonegative of “All The President’s Men.” For audiences in 1976, going from “President’s” to “Network” must’ve felt like chasing Pepto-Bismol with whiskey, the idealism of the former made immediately, obviously cloying by the bleak fatalistic streak running through the latter. Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky’s masterpiece is less cautionary tale than it is prophecy: the film’s story of a broadcast anchor losing his mind and threatening suicide on live television, only to be pulled back from the brink when his outburst skyrockets his program’s ratings, presaged cable news personalities from Jerry Springer to Sean Hannity. Peter Finch’s Howard Beale is one of cinema’s great tragic figures, a Cassandra whose doomsaying is repackaged for national broadcast. His now-famous “mad as hell” monologue earned him a posthumous Oscar, and has been reverberating through the American consciousness since the film’s release — even if the message has gone unheeded. We’re still mad as hell, but we’ve been taking it for 45 years. The movie swept three of the four acting categories at the Academy Awards — Beatrice Straight set a record, winning Best Supporting Actress for a single, five minute scene, and Ned Beatty should have followed suit for his similarly fiery one-off turn as a network head who delivers the film’s thesis. When Beatty’s Jensen tells a terrified Beale that he must serve as a “prophet” for the country, Beale asks: “Why me?” Beatty’s answer twists that existential question into a sick setup, and provides the punchline that illustrates the power of journalism in the last half-century: “Because you’re on television, dummy.”

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