Movies love journalists. From making us laugh in His Girl Friday in the 1940s to inspiring us to question in All the President’s Men in the 1970s, moviemakers find reporters fascinating. The silver screen never tires of stories about people who report news stories.
In the fall of 2004, CBS news producer Mary Mapes hungers to tell a good story. After putting together an acclaimed examination of the Abu Ghraib scandal, she discovers a new situation to research. A retired military man from Texas claims to have documentation that will raise questions about the service of President George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War. Mapes assembles a team to collect the facts, convinces Dan Rather to report the story on the air, and catches a lot of flack when people question the authenticity of the claims. While bloggers and politicos point out inconsistencies in the documents, and speculate about hidden agendas at work, Mapes and Rather try to protect their work and save their careers.
Movies about journalism work best when something threatens the reporter’s commitment to truth or when reporters overcome obstacles to tell their stories. In Michael Mann’s The Insider, an excellent film that could be a first cousin to Truth, we feel surrounded by the news producer’s urgency to get the story on the air. When Alan J. Pakula directed All the President’s Men, he imported actual trash from The Washington Post to fill the trash bins on set to make sure his moving picture felt real enough for an audience to believe in the reporters’ work.
In Truth, we never fully believe the newspeople are all that hungry to tell the story. Despite the efficiency of the script, we want more detail of how these professionals believe they are doing their jobs even when they skip necessary checks. We want to learn what makes telling this story so essential at this moment that the journalists choose to assume instead of confirm. Without this detail, this texture, the film fails to capitalize on the magic of a reporter’s work, a miss that makes us less inclined to care when enemies question the outcome.
As Mary Mapes, Cate Blanchett turns in a masterful performance. In one of her most grounded portrayals, Blanchett makes Mapes a fascinating combination of ambition, fear and attitude. The actress gives the character a salty sense of self that reaches beyond the details she tries to protect.
When others attack, Blanchett gives Mapes a vulnerable core that appeals. And, because we like the character, we want her to be fairly treated. This good will makes us want to know more about why her drive to accomplish exceeds her judgment. Robert Redford, who seems incapable of a moment on screen that is absent of truth, is delightfully crotchety as the iconic Rather without getting underneath the celebrity’s skin. And Topher Grace turns in a surprising turn as a young journalist who still believes in the magic of the profession.
Truth may, ultimately, tell us less about the situations it recreates than about the depth of Cate Blanchett’s talent. This actress can make anything work on screen, even those moments we don’t fully believe.
Film Nutritional Value:
Content: Medium. This look at the news behind the news could do more to help
us learn about the urgency reporters bring to their work.
Entertainment: High. Thanks to a remarkable cast, and an insightful script, the
film delivers a diverting if superficial look at a journalist’s work.
Message: Medium. Because the film doesn’t give us enough details about how
reporters work we are less connected to what it says about their work.
Relevance: High. Any opportunity to introduce our older children to the issues of
journalists, their work and their choices is a welcome visit to the movies.
Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older
children, talk about the realities of embracing truth as we work.
(Truth is rated R for language. The film runs 121 minutes.)
How movies love journalism
With two films this fall focusing on the work of journalists – Truth and the upcoming Spotlight – this profession the movies love again finds it moment on screen. Here are three of the best of the films from the movie archive that pay tribute to the essential work of people who discover and share the news.
All the President’s Men (1976)
No film captures the impact of journalism with the urgency of this classic from director Alan J. Pakula. It says more about the importance of the profession because it never lets itself be about this profession. Instead it reminds us what change we create when we follow our instincts, strengthen our craft and face our challenges with intensity of cause and humility of spirit. As the film recreates a chapter in history when a nation’s embarrassment over the behavior of its president almost toppled an institution, it dares to treat a familiar narrative as a thriller even though we know the ending. Because we know the verdict, we can speculate about the accusation; since we have the answers we can savor the questions. The film helps us imagine how investigative journalists work in the days before blogs and the Internet as they rely on sources, in deep background, and spend hours trying to capture a few authentic details that may help answer important questions. It teaches us that it’s not enough to have a hunch; it takes discipline to make sure what is published is true.
The Insider (1999)
In the media search for truth, the news magazine has become a reliable weekly entry to entertain, inform and – at its best – provoke debate and discussion. Of these types of programs, the most venerable is 60 Minutes, a show that since it debuted in 1968 has regularly reaped high ratings and praise for its investigative reporting. While imitators have come and gone, 60 Minutes still manages to make us think. But no effort is perfect and, as the new film Truth shows, even 60 Minutes can have a misstep. The Insider takes us inside a chapter that the news program may likely want to overlook when network pressure interfered with broadcasting an interview that would criticize the tobacco industry for disregarding (and misinforming the public about) the hazards of cigarette smoking. While the film is neither a detailed account of the tobacco case or a behind-the-scenes look at the production of a news magazine, it feeds our minds by focusing on the gray area where these two worlds intersect, in the daily lives of those who hunger for the news and those who hunger for the truth and how it becomes too easy for all of them to forget what they hunger for.
Television was described, in the early 1960s, as a vast wasteland in a prediction that the entertainment created by the medium would someday overwhelm any ability for television to create public good. Several years later, Paddy Chayefsky predicted a similar world in this outrageous comedy about a television network that decides, for the sake of the ratings, to turn news into entertainment. Seen through the lens of 1976, Network looks like a far-fetched fantasy that could never occur, especially in a world where news broadcasters were held in high esteem. Today it would seem Chayefsky had a most precise crystal ball as he describes, in fascinating detail, the television world we experience every day, including the reality show. He takes us inside a world of broadcast news that may only be a slight exaggeration of what actually exists today. The clarity of his vision from the 1970s makes Network an essential film about journalism. That we would dare to imagine what the medium could be – and tell its story in such an entertaining way – is what gives the film such lasting value.
Thanks to the wonders of movies, the world of journalism is alive on screens. May we never forget how essential this profession can be to the truth we need.