Steven Spielberg’s “The Post” charts an intense showdown between the White House and news organizations. It could be 2018, but it’s actually 1971.
The White House occupant is Richard Nixon, a president who often engaged in press-bashing. Under the current climate of President Donald Trump’s anti-press rants, the presumed enemy is “Fake News.” In 1971, it was “real news” that the New York Times and Washington Post were struggling to publish — 7,000 pages of government secrets about Vietnam that came to be called the Pentagon Papers.
The film, starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, is an emphatic endorsement of freedom of the press. (In 1971, the Supreme Court mostly agreed, ruling 6-3 in favor of the Times and the Post.)
The hectic pace of reporters, photographers and editors scrambling to meet deadlines often makes for good movie moments. With “The Post” now in theaters, we thought it would be fitting to revisit some of the great newspaper movies.
“All the President’s Men”
Stop the presses!
Any discussion of newspaper movies pretty much begins and ends with “All the President’s Men.”
It was all so startlingly real and relevant. It was also a great detective story. The film, directed by Alan J. Pakula and written by William Goldman, was released in 1976. Nixon had resigned just two years earlier and the Watergate break-in had occurred only four years earlier. The country was still reeling from the aftershocks.
The furious trail followed by the Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), as they uncovered the monumental cover-up, makes for riveting viewing. Jason Robards snarled, and scored an Oscar, as Post editor Ben Bradlee. Hal Holbrook smoked a lot and hid in abandoned parking lots as super source Deep “Follow the money!” Throat. The power of the press was exemplified by an extreme close-up of a typewriter key assaulting a blank sheet of paper.
Reality check: I have worked at newspapers and magazines for more than 30 years, and I have never met a reporter as good looking as Redford.
Of more recent vintage was the terrific “Spotlight” from 2015, the chronicle of the Boston Globe’s efforts to expose the tragic machinations of the Catholic Archdiocese and child molestation by its priests.
A budgetary luxury now, newspapers used to have investigative units. The Globe’s onscreen crew was led by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams. “Spotlight” won Academy Awards for best picture and best original screenplay, and was nominated for four others.
Reality check: Director Tom McCarthy bothered to show the tedious grunt work of reporting —poring over boxes of old clippings and documents, knocking on doors, talking to scores of sources, uncomfortable interviews, hitting dead ends, calling in favors, endless digging.
Twenty-one years before “Spotlight,” Keaton found himself at the center of another journalism crisis in Ron Howard’s “The Paper.”
He plays a New York tabloid editor at wit’s end, not only chasing the big story, but also battling budget cuts and juggling the angst of his very pregnant wife (Marisa Tomei).
For anyone who has ever worked in a newsroom, the beauty of “The Paper” is that it illustrated the real concerns of reporters. We don’t stand around discussing ethics and the First Amendment. We’re a whiny bunch who grouse about editors, story play, lousy pay, parking spaces, eternally malfunctioning AC (or heating) systems and chairs — wobbly chairs, broken chairs, stolen chairs: “Who’s got my godd—— chair?!?”
Reality check: Yes, it’s all about chairs.
‘The Front Page,” “His Girl Friday”
The template for many old newspaper films comes from a newspaper play: “The Front Page.”
Written by former reporters Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur, the play about the questionable and comical methods of Chicago tabloids debuted on Broadway in 1928. In 1931, it became a movie starring Adolphe Menjou as oily editor Walter Burns and Pat O’Brien as star reporter Hildy Johnson.
A decade later, in a stroke of gender-switching genius, Howard Hawks turned it into “His Girl Friday,” with Cary Grant as Burns and Rosalind Russell as Hildy. This time, Hildy is Burns’ ex-wife and about to get married anew. Burns uses a string of sneaky tricks to break up her engagement and get her to cover an impending execution.
“His Girl Friday” is one of the greatest fast-talking movies of all time. It’s also very funny. The harried scenes in the press room at Chicago’s Criminal Courts Building are a master class in film editing and overlapping dialogue.
“Deadline — U.S.A”
Hollywood has embraced hard-charging, heavy-drinking, chain-smoking, midnight-oil-burning scribes, but it has also found time to preach the gospel of a fearless press.
The 1950s brought us newspaper editors as civic crusaders in movies such as “Deadline — U.S.A.” and “-30-.”
In “Deadline — U.S.A.,” Humphrey Bogart plays Ed Hutcheson, managing editor of The Day. When we meet him, his paper is on the verge of being sold to the owner of The Standard, a sleazy crosstown rival. Hutcheson finds himself not only attempting to nail a nefarious gangster and solve a murder (and reconnect with his weary ex-wife), but trying to save the paper from folding after the sale.
He keeps a bottle of scotch under his typewriter, isn’t shy about intimidating or paying sources (in cash) and delivers a preachy speech about the importance of a fearless press. “Deadline — U.S.A.,” from 1952, was written and directed by Richard Brooks (“In Cold Blood”), who was not afraid to lay it on thick.
At one point, Hutcheson proudly quotes The Day’s founding creed: “This paper will fight for progress and reform, will never be satisfied with merely printing the news, will never be afraid to attack wrong whether by predatory wealth or predatory poverty.”
You tell ‘em, Bogie!
Reality check: I never actually saw a co-worker pull a bottle of scotch out of his or her desk drawer, but I’ve heard stories.
Alas, not all newspaper movies have been winners.
One of the worst is Jack Webb’s “-30-” from 1959. (In the world of ink-stained wretches, typing “-30-” at the end of a story meant just that: it was the end of the story.)
Webb, who rose to fame as Detective Joe Friday on Dragnet, directed and stars as managing editor Sam Gatlin.
His film takes great pains to walk us through the newsroom and everyone’s duties. It’s a kick to see the pre-digital doings, but the heavy-handed speeches and wooden pacing make for a slog of a film.
The “why newspapers matter” speech this time comes from William Conrad, chewing scenery as a crusty city editor.
Reality check: “-30-” does remind us of one newspaper truism. You don’t really have a story unless you have good art (photos).
Other newspaper or newspaper-related films worth checking out include Billy Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” (1951), Sydney Pollack’s “Absence of Malice” (1981) and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” (2007).
Orson Welles’ epic “Citizen Kane,” which many consider the greatest movie of all time, is not strictly a newspaper flick, though the erratic Kane, based on media mogul William Randolph Hearst, is a super rich publisher who is happy to use the pages of his papers to take down his enemies, both political and personal.
When it’s going after bad guys, the power of the press is a beautiful thing.
At the climax of “Deadline — U.S.A.,” Bogart’s Ed Hutcheson is in the press room at night waiting for the massive machines to start spitting out the pages that will finger gangster Rienzi (Martin Gabel) as a murderer. The paper is scheduled to close the next morning, adding poignancy to the words “Final Edition.” Rienzi reaches Hutcheson on the phone and threatens to kill him if he dares to publish the accusations.
To demonstrate his resolve, Hutcheson simply holds the phone out to catch the cacophonous rumblings as bells sound and the machines start churning. The gangster demands to know what’s causing that ear-splitting noise. Hutcheson yells his answer:
“That’s the press, baby!”