There are all kinds of First Amendment films, freedom of the press films, media films, broadcasting films, and so forth. You’ve probably seen many of them yourself. One common characteristic amongst these films is the hagiographic treatment they give of journalists, reporters, and anchors. If you watch too many of these films, you’ll get the sense that your average reporter is a modern day errant knight, sallying forth opposing those who do wrong. Films like Spotlight (2015), All the Presidents Men (1976), and Good Night and Good Luck (2005) fit right into this pattern.
There’s not necessarily anything wrong with praising the press in film, and it’s certainly no worse than the type of uncritical condemnatory invective we get from politicians and, incredibly, other members of the press today, but there’s more out there in cinema land than “journalist saves the day” films.
There are also films that are critical, dark, or that show the complications of the press–the good, the bad, and the ugly. These are films that show how journalists and infotainment celebrities can have mixed motives and complicated choices. They show how journalists construct stories within a matrix of political, social, and economic pressures. They depict the mutual manipulation that occurs between journalists, their sources, and their audiences. I’ve tried to pick films that don’t paint a purely laudatory nor a singularly reproachful depiction of the fourth estate.
Here they are!!!!
Please let me know which films you would add to this list:
His Girl Friday (1940), This screwball comedy stars Cary Grant (Walter Burns) and Rosalind Russell (Hildy Johnson), as a divorced couple. Hildy’s going to remarry, but Walter wants to take one more shot at getting her back. So what does this have to do with the press?
Walter’s a newspaper editor and Hildy was his loyal and dependable assistant–his girl Friday. She was his top writer, and knew how to get a scoop and write a compelling story. But through their antics and her return to journalism, both of them cross plenty of professional boundaries. The backdrop of the film includes many reporters, all of whom have mixed motives when writing stories, and none of whom seem exclusively interested in the truth.
Citizen Kane (1941), Consistently ranked one of the greatest films in American cinema history (mostly because of its clever use of lighting, camera angles, editing, and mise-en-scene), there are also other interesting aspects to this classic film, including the fact that Charles Foster Kane owns a media empire. Kane’s motives at the beginning of the film are at least somewhat noble, but as he continues on as editor, he abuses his power as publisher and editor. He uses his media empire to bully his loved ones, seek personal political power, and immerse himself in narcissistic celebrations.
Ace in the Hole (1951), An undervalued treasure, this film stars Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, an amoral big city journalist, who has been driven from the top tier of the profession; he’s now stuck in a newspaper out in the Southwest until he can find a hit story. He finds one, when he discovers a man stuck in a cave. But rather than save the man’s life and write the story, he conspires with law enforcement to let the trapped man languish in the cave, turning the incident in a media circus that he can ride to professional stardom. It’s sort of like the Baby Jessica story, but if someone did it on purpose.
A Face in the Crowd (1957), This movie cuts against type for Andy Griffith (Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes), who plays a media huckster who plays on fear and people’s love of spectacle to become an outsized media personality. Griffith’s character bears so many resemblances to Glenn Beck (and other such media stars) that it’s frankly uncanny. This film is thought provoking for a number of reasons. For instance, it shows that the cultural predilection towards this type of media demagogary was already present and apparent in the mid-20th Century.
Network (1976), This film is very similar to A Face in the Crowd in the sense that it offers a preview for our modern media landscape. It has the iconic, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore” line from Howard Beale (Peter Finch). But that famous speech doesn’t really do this film justice.
There’s an even more powerful speech by Ned Beatty (Arthur Jensen), both in terms of content, performance, and cinematography. There are incredible performances by Faye Dunaway (Diana Christensen), William Holden (Max Schumacher), Robert Duvall (Frank Hackett), Beatrice Straight (Louise Schumacher), and Marlene Warfield (Laureen Hobbs). Network depicts how the lines between journalism, entertainment, corporate ideology, and politics are blurred; this film shows how those network of connections between different institutions have become increasingly problematic in our capitalistic society.
Absence of Malice (1981), Is a journalist’s obligation to get a story right, or is it to simply not violate the basic legal requirements of the profession? Is there a problem with a journalist working with the police? What are the human costs of stories that are untrue? Paul Newman (Gallagher) and Sally Field (Megan) put forth incredible performances in this dark but nuanced view of the newspaper world. This film shows that there are no easy answers, but sometimes there are clearly wrong answers. For reasons better left unsaid (until you’ve seen the movies), I would recommend watching this one in conjunction with American Hustle (2013).
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), This brilliant but underrated Coen brothers classic harkens back to the screwball comedies of the 1930s and 1940s and can legitimately be called a modern addition to that genre. Norville Barns (Tim Robbins) is an out-of-towner country bumpkin who makes his way to the big city, and he finds himself through a weird twist-of-fate, the leader of Hudsucker Industries.
But all is not what it seems, and Amy Archer (Jennifer Jason Leigh) is a hot-shot, fast-talking, female reporter who is going to figure out what is really going on. This film bears so many resemblances to His Girl Friday that they should really be watched together. In terms of the Fourth Estate, The Hudsucker Proxy demonstrates how newspapers can create myths, legends, villains, and drama where either none exists or don’t exist as the press would have us believe.
Wag the Dog (1997), Some might object that this is more of a political film than a media film, but it shows how the media and political establishment depend and feed off each other. With just a few weeks to go before election day, the President needs his mysterious associate Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) to create a distraction, so that an impending scandal won’t cost him reelection.
Brean recruits Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) to come up with an idea: Motss’ idea? They’re going to start a war–not a real war, just a pretend war, and they’re going to do that with the help of the media/entertainment complex.
Frost/Nixon (2008), If there’s a film that doesn’t belong on this list, it’s probably this one, but it’s such a good film and likely unseen by many film buffs, I’m recommending it. The reason it’s not quite right for this list is because it’s a fairly positive portrayal of The Fourth Estate. But, then again? David Frost (Michael Sheen), a human interest story infotainment interviewer, and his merry band of misfits are the crew that take down Richard Nixon (Frank Langella), not hard nosed experienced journalists, like some might expect.
That twist in who the likely heroes are makes this a film that forces us to rethink who we believe is worthy of serious consideration as a journalist and who is not. Along those same lines, in our 21st Century world, non-traditional news sites, such as Buzzfeed, are getting scoops, whereas major news institutions are left with questionable reports.
In the Loop (2009), This is one of my favorite films. It’s loosely based on the lead-up to the second war in Iraq. Set in The United Kingdom, the story is about the Prime Minister’s Cabinet and how they manage their communications with the press, and how the PM’s press secretary manages to intimidate and manipulate both members of the press and members of the Cabinet.
It’s an incredibly well written film with an ensemble cast, including Peter Capaldi as the fast-talking, cursing, press secretary, Malcolm Tucker. Anna Chlumsky plays a wise-cracking, cynical, go-getter assistant (Liza Weld), which is basically the same character she will later play in the HBO series, VEEP. And Tom Hollander plays Simon Foster, a minister in the PM’s Cabinet, who is equal parts hapless and burdened by a pacifist conscience.
So there you have it–ten films about The Fourth Estate that will make you think. Which of these films have you seen? What did you think of them? Which films would you put on this list? Thanks for reading!