The Post, Citizen Kane, Spotlight, All the President's Men: Eight essential films for an aspiring journalist

FP Staff

Jan 11, 2018 17:32:18 IST

Steven Spielberg’s new film The Post may be a tale of press freedom and the place of women in the workplace in 1971 but it is also a tale that is exceptionally relevant even today. The celebrated director rushed to film and release the movie within a year primarily because he found the parallels between 1971 and 2017 “terrifyingly similar.” The movie arrives at a time when the media has been under attack by US President Donald Trump since his election in November 2016.

A still from The Post

A still from The Post

The Post stars Meryl Streep as aristocratic Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham and Tom Hanks as the newspaper's scrappy executive editor Ben Bradlee. The drama at the heart of the film revolves around Graham's decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, a move which could have had potentially fatal consequences for the family newspaper she took over eight years earlier upon the suicide of her husband.

The Pentagon Papers, leaked by whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg, was a 7,000-page classified report which determined — contrary to the public assertions of US government officials — that the Vietnam conflict was unwinnable. The New York Times published excerpts until the administration of president Richard Nixon obtained a court injunction barring the newspaper from continuing to do so on national security grounds. That's where the Post stepped in, braving legal and financial peril to take up the torch. Spielberg's film is a wonderful ode to their daring efforts and journalism itself.

As the film hits theatres on Friday, let's revisit some of the most memorable journalism films.

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Orson Welles in Citizen Kane

Citizen Kane, the Orson Welles classic, infuriated the man who inspired it. Publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst, an old man by the time of the film’s 1941 release, was livid over its portrait of a ruthless, wealthy publishing baron, Charles Foster Kane, a fictional character played by Welles and drawn closely to Hearst’s likeness. It was a well-dramatised, if embellished, account of a self-made tycoon and politician whose newspaper empire reshaped US journalism and stirred public sentiments that helped ignite the Spanish-American War in 1898.

Produced when Welles was just 25, Citizen Kane frequently tops all-time best movie lists and ranks No 1 on the American Film Institute’s roster of greatest American films. Still, it did not win best picture at the 14th Academy Awards in 1942. The award went instead to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley, and Citizen Kane won for original screenplay.

Ace in the Hole (Billy Wilder, 1951)

"Bad news sells best, because good news is no news," says Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas) in Billy Wilder's classic 1951 film. Tatum is a down-on-his-luck ace reporter from New York who has been reduced to writing for a small New Mexico paper called Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin. When he hears about a local man trapped alive in a cave collapse, we see him cross the line to get the scoop that he believes could catapult him back to a job at a major newspaper in the Big Apple. The film takes a cynical look at journalists criticising their malleable ethics and propensity to sensationalise news.

All the President's Men (Alan J Pakula, 1976)

A still from All The President's Men. Image via Warner Bros.

A still from All The President's Men. Image via Warner Bros.

Spielberg told AFP that The Post is "a movie about patriotism and a movie about the courageous media, the Fourth Estate, and what they did to be able to get the Pentagon Papers published, which then led to Watergate." Watergate, of course, was the subject of a 1976 Hollywood blockbuster in which The Washington Post also played a starring role — All the President's Men. The classic film about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s unraveling of Watergate, opens with hammering typewriter keystrokes that sound like gunshots. Four decades later, those shots — forged by relentless digging by two unlikely Washington Post reporters — still reverberate.

Today, when scandals over inaccuracy and allegations of softness plague the media, All the President’s Men is frequently referenced as a beacon of a bygone era when journalists were seen as heroes. Woodward and Bernstein, in real life and as played, respectively, by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, were sharp-witted reporting sleuths, pursuing and exposing one of history’s biggest governmental cover-ups.

Almost Famous (Cameron Crowe, 2000)

Perhaps the best music journalism movie ever, Almost Famous is writer-director Cameron Crowe's semi-autobigraphical account of his own experiences as a teenage writer for Rolling Stone. The film follows a high-school student named William Miller (Patrick Fugit) as he tours the country with some of his favourite rock bands, including the up-and-coming Stillwater.

Miller learns the positive and negative aspects of the rock 'n' roll lifestyle through his relationship with lead guitarist Russell Hammond (Billy Crudup), groupie Penny Lane (Kate Hudson) and seasoned journalist Lester Bangs (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who offers some really sound advice for any aspiring journalist: "You have to make your reputation on being honest and unmerciful."

Shattered Glass (Billy Ray, 2003)

Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass and Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane in Shattered Glass

Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass and Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane in Shattered Glass

Billy Ray's 2003 film tells the true story of the rise and fall of Stephen Glass, a twenty-something writer at The New Republic who was discovered to have fabricated over half of his articles — making up sources, quotes and whole stories. Hayden Christensen stars as Glass and Peter Sarsgaard stars as Glass's last editor, Charles Lane. The film acts a painful reminder in this era of online and social media-influenced journalism by calling into question the veracity of each story published. It emphasises the need for thorough editing and rigorous fact-checking.

Nightcrawler (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

He’s a coyote, a starving coyote. Actually, he’s a television reporter hankering for more blood and guts than anyone else. He’s another deeply disturbing character for Jake Gyllenhaal. In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal plays gaunt sociopath Lou Bloom, who trawls the streets of Los Angeles to film horrific crime scenes for use in early morning local television news. But inside Bloom’s introverted, oddball self lies someone with an intense desire to find success in the corporate world.

Nightcrawler also stars Rene Russo as an older local TV news producer in fear of being edged out, follows Lou speeding around Los Angeles in the midnight hours, filming car crashes and crime scenes to feed stories about urban crime seeping into affluent suburbs. For Lou, death becomes a product as he gets closer and closer to the victims just to get the “money shot,” and the bloodier and gorier it is, the more money for him.

Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

This photo provided by Open Road Films shows, Michael Keaton, from left, as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, "Spotlight." The film is among the 10 nominees for the Producers Guild Awards, which were announced Tuesday, Jan. 5, 2016. (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films via AP)

(From L-R) Michael Keaton as Walter "Robby" Robinson, Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams, as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll, in a scene from the film, Spotlight. AP

Spotlight, starring Michael Keaton as editor Walter Robinson and Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams as reporters Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer respectively, looks into Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of paedophile Roman Catholic priests. The Globe’s Spotlight team exposed the attacks over a period of decades by priests in the Boston archdiocese who molested young boys and girls but instead of being reported to the police were given counseling and moved to a different parish.

The expose led to the resignation of Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law in 2002. The film for the most part focuses on how the team tracked down and confronted some of the offending priests. They interviewed victims who were still distraught and disturbed decades later, and established that the Roman Catholic Church had a policy of paying victims to remain silent, and not rock the boat by making their allegations public.

The film, which focuses on the work of the investigative reporters who spent months tracking down sealed court records, victims and abusive priests, does not depict abuse but shows the heavy emotional toll it took on survivors, many of whom turned to alcohol, drugs or suicide when unable to overcome their pain.

With inputs from agencies

Updated Date: Jan 11, 2018 20:05:31 IST