Released last month to near-universal critical acclaim, Spotlight chronicles the uncovering of widespread pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church by our own Boston Globe. Coming out of the theater, I found myself thinking about the subject of journalism, and how it’s addressed in film. It’s a topic not uncommon to film, but the ways in which filmmakers portray it- with cynicism or idealism, humor or grave seriousness- vary greatly. With the release of Spotlight, it’s worth going back and comparing a few of the greatest films to cover the subject of journalism.
Certainly on the scale of funny to serious, Spotlight is far down on the serious side, as it should be. With a subject so horrifying, any exaggerated thrills or comic relief wouldn’t just be out of place, they would be insulting. Director Tom McCarthy makes all the right choices, portraying the Globe staff not as noble heroes but as dedicated professionals doing their job, and towards the end (though I won’t spoil anything), there’s some blame that goes around to some of them, too.
This is critical to the success of Spotlight. The goal of a journalism movie is to look at the people behind the newspaper, at how they conduct their work and their lives. McCarthy sees them as resolutely human, making all the mistakes humans make, but at the same time, trying their best to do the right thing.
The film which Spotlight is getting most often compared to is Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 classic All the President’s Men, the story of the two reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal. The resemblance is clear: Spotlight and President’s Men definitely have similar approaches to the personalities of the reporters, and the same sense of growing awareness of conspiracy much bigger than first anticipated. But, (though it could be I’m just too young to appreciate the situation), AtPM doesn’t pack an emotional punch the same way Spotlight does- its appeal is in thrilling the audience. AtPM is cathartic; at the end, the audience gets to see a miraculous takedown of American corruption. Spotlight is far more melancholy; its ending is happy, technically, but it doesn’t leave you grinning and pumping your fists.
Standing on the absolute opposite end of the idealism-cynicism scale is Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole (1951), arguably one of the most cynical films ever made. Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum, a reporter who’s been bounced from paper to paper, getting into trouble for something different every time. He’s narcissistic, aggressive, sleazy, condescending, and overall possessing of no redeeming factors whatsoever, save for the fact that he is an extremely good journalist. Forced to sign onto a small paper in Albuquerque, he takes advantage of a man trapped in a cave collapse to bring the big papers crawling back to him. He pays off the sheriff to set up an extremely slow method of saving the man, taking about a week instead of two days, all while rallying public interest to the level that the space around the cave becomes a carnival of people come to give their support to the trapped man.
Ace got bad reviews on its release. Critics rightly praised the stunning visuals and the vicious performances from Douglas and Jan Sterling as the victim’s wife, who unapologetically cashes in on her husband’s suffering, but were horrified and personally offended (after all, critics are journalists, too) by its all-encompassing cynicism. And you may be too. But Ace is best seen outside of its politics, where it reveals itself as a fantastic film, as thrilling and cathartic, in its own way, as All the President’s Men.
A comparable film to Ace in the Hole is Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (1957). The film follows powerful newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) and his press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis). The two are both power-obsessed, but Hunsecker with the power he has and Falco by the power he hopes to gain by clinging to Hunsecker and going along with his underhanded schemes. The main plot of the film revolves around Hunsecker’s plan to use a rival column to plant a rumor about his sister’s boyfriend, whom he dislikes. Though probably the most imperfect of all the movies here, Sweet Smell still has bountiful pleasures, from Curtis’s slime-filled performance to the brilliant dialogue — James Wong Howe’s cinematography alone is worth the watch.
Mackendrick’s focus on specific people in a specific job keeps Sweet Smell from the all-encompassing cynicism of Ace, but the two films share a distrust of the people who have the power to control the things we know about the world. This, I think, is the essential theme of films about journalism: the responsibility of the press to get the news to the people that the people need to know. All of these films understand that journalists are only human- the split between them is whether they see journalists as people essentially devoted to their profession over their personal life, or people who cynically use their profession to improve their personal life.
Other noteworthy films about journalism not mentioned include His Girl Friday (1940) and Zodiac (2007).