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The Top 20 Movies About Journalism, Ranked: Part 1

| Tuesday, August 18, 2020

Diane Park | The Observer

Some professions are more cinematic than others; if you were to rank 9-to-5s by their potential for on-camera entertainment, spies, soldiers and Jedi Knights would come in near the top of the list. At first glance, journalists — with their emphasis on steady accumulation of facts and distinct non-emphasis on explosions — should be at the bottom, next to patent lawyers and optometrists. Despite their seeming rejection of cinematic tropes, though, journalists have been on the silver screen almost since the dawn of film, appearing in Best Picture-winning dramas, screwball comedies and nearly everything in between. Over the next two days, I’ll rank the top 20 movies about journalism, taking into account both their depiction of the profession and their overall quality as movies.

  1. “Fletch” (1985)

What do Don Corleone, Ted Nugent and Igor Stravinsky have in common? They’re all aliases used by Irwin “Fletch” Fletcher, the Los Angeles Times investigative reporter played by Chevy Chase in this comedy from director Michael Ritchie. Fletch isn’t much of a journalist — the film’s plot seems to unfold simply because it has to — but as a role, it’s the funniest that Chase has ever been. 

  1. “Spotlight” (2015)

Let’s get this one out of the way. Tom McCarthy’s Best Picture-winner about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Boston Archdiocese’s sex abuse scandal is a stately, well-acted film whose one-dimensional characters and black-and-white morals have always left me cold. The movie wants to be “All The President’s Men,” but instead ends up with all the emotional complexity — and predictability — of a game of tic-tac-toe. As far as Best Picture travesties go, “Spotlight” over “Mad Max: Fury Road” isn’t exactly “Dances With Wolves” over “Goodfellas,” but it’s close. 

  1. “Absence of Malice” (1981)

The phrase “they don’t make movies like this anymore” is mostly a false one, a refrain uttered by pearl-clutching boomers faced by an onslaught of superhero movies and wishing for a return to the lightly inspiring fascism of “Dirty Harry” or the casual racism and homophobia of a Neil Simon picture. On the rare occasion that the sentiment is warranted, however, it’s being used for movies like “Absence of Malice.” The mid-budget, high-concept thriller starring Paul Newman as a man falsely accused of murder by his local paper is an expressly adult film of the sort virtually absent from today’s multiplexes, handling questions of journalistic oversight and responsibility with a deft hand. 

  1. “Shattered Glass” (2003)

In the mid-90s, New Republic writer Stephen Glass enjoyed a level of notoriety afforded to few journalists, his tales of teenage hackers and debauched Young Republicans embodying the down-low verve of a crime novel — and containing about as much truth. Billy Ray’s film follows Glass’ fall from grace, with Hayden Christensen giving the performance of his career as the bespectacled, charming scribe who can’t hide the fact that his best stories are largely fabricated. 

  1. “State of Play” (2009)

A return to the paranoia thrillers of the 1970s, Kevin Macdonald’s adaptation of a British television series replaces Watergate and Cold War fears with post-9/11 anxieties about domestic terror. Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck give life to the film’s push-and-pull between politicians and journalists, a dynamic that builds to a chilling coda made all the more prescient in a post-Wikileaks world. 

  1. “The Insider” (1999)

After subjecting audiences to Hannibal Lecter, Nazi occultists and Tom Sizemore’s performance in “Heat,” Michael Mann turned his lens to the most dastardly villain yet: Big Tobacco. Al Pacino stars as “60 Minutes” producer Lowell Bergman, whose investigation into Brown & Williamson gains him the ire of both the tobacco giant and his own network’s executives alike. This is at once Mann’s least violent movie and his most tense; until the credits roll, the audience is holding their breath for Bergman and B&W whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand. 

  1. “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005)

George Clooney’s handsomely shot and designed Edward R. Murrow biopic is one of the more visually striking movies on this list, with black-and-white cinematography that belies the Old Hollywood values undergirding the feature. Longtime character actor David Stratharin finally steps into the limelight as Murrow, injecting the broadcaster’s taciturn public image with his own nervy energy. Along with “High Noon” and “The Manchurian Candidate,” this film is one of cinema’s great depictions of McCarthyism — unlike those movies, though, “Good Night, and Good Luck” doesn’t bother with metaphor, deigning instead to show the direct results of America’s anti-Communist crusade. 

  1. “The Killing Fields” (1984)

Roland Joffe’s docudrama about two journalists — one American, one Cambodian — reporting on and surviving the reign of the Khmer Rouge is a brutal, heartbreaking film, one that takes the time to establish the humanity and desperation of its characters before subjecting them to unimaginable pain. Real-life Khmer Rouge survivor and amateur actor Haing S. Ngor gives an impeccably layered performance as Dith Pran, whose trek across the titular warzone forms the heart of the movie. 

  1. “The Post” (2017)

This late-career triumph from Steven Spielberg, Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep could have merely coasted on the pedigree of its director and stars, and the resulting film probably would have been perfectly okay. Instead, all three stars dove into the project — about The Washington Post’s attempts to publish the Pentagon Papers in 1971 — and in the process created a confident, rhythmic defense of the freedom of the press. Hanks, in particular, gives one of the best performances of his career as Post executive editor Ben Bradlee, who will appear again near the top of this list. 

  1. “Almost Famous” (2000)

“What do you love about music?” asks teenage journalist (and proto-Scene writer) William Miller. “To begin with, everything,” responds Stillwater guitarist Russell Hammond. If I were making this list with my heart only, Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical yarn of an adolescent writer profiling the Eagles-esque group Stillwater for Rolling Stone would be number one with a bullet.  Every time that the film verges on the edge of being too sentimental, Crowe rights the ship with help from an astonishingly talented cast. Kate Hudson is transcendent as the wounded, cautious groupie Penny Lane (watch the “what kind of beer?” scene and ask yourself how she didn’t win the Oscar), and Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s two scenes as rock writer Lester Bangs contain both the film’s funniest turn and the most honest criticism of the Doors you’ll ever hear. The performances, the stacked soundtrack, Jason Lee telling Crudup “I’m the front man and you’re the guitarist with mystique” — these are only the tip of the iceberg on one of the sweetest, most re-watchable movies ever made. What do I love about “Almost Famous?” To begin with…

Check back here tomorrow for the rest of the numbers a the top of the list for my countdown of the greatest journalism movies ever.

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