The 10 Best Journalism Movies Ever Made

Film poster for The Year of Living Dangerously...
Image via Wikipedia

Nostalgia smackdown!

This month one of Manhattan’s best indie cinemas, Film Forum, is running a 43-film series of movies about newspapering. Here are my picks:

1) “Deadline U.S.A“, starring Humphrey Bogart as Ed Hutcheson, an editor who has to tell his newsroom staff they’ve got two weeks before they’re all canned, Sound familiar?  This was in 1952. The owner, (Kay Graham? Alicia Patterson?)  is an elegant older woman who inherited the paper from her husband. The paper’s star female reporter sounds like plenty of career journo’s I’ve met: “I’ve got $81 in the bank, two dead husbands and two or three kids I never had.”

2) Absence of Malice, 1981, starring Paul Newman and Sally Field. From Wikipedia:

“tells the story of Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the son of a deceased Mafia boss who discovers that he has become a front-page story in the local Miami newspaper, indicating that he is being investigated for a murder of a local longshoreman Union official he may or may not have been involved in. Sally Field as Megan is the reporter who writes the story after being prodded by a former lover who is working on the investigation for the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The worlds of Gallagher and Megan start to come closer and closer, and although she is a modern woman and as he says, he is “from the stone age”, her the ethics of journalism are tested, including how close a reporter should get to his or her source.”

3) The Paper, 1994. Starring Michael Keaton as a NYC tabloid paper editor Henry Hackett and Marisa Tomei as his weary wife. I love this movie. Sue me. I get a hoot out of crazy Glenn Close fist-fighting as the presses roll, I love Keaton’s absurd passion for his work, the tabloid nuttiness that’s totally true to form. Having survived my time at the Daily News, I know some of this stuff isn’t very far from fiction.

4) All The President’s Men. 1976. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who reported the Watergate scandal and brought down a President. One of the few movies that makes journalism look like something worth doing.

5) The Year of Living Dangerously. Hopelessly romantic, this 1982 film made me yearn endlessly to become a foreign correspondent. From Wikipedia:

The story is about a love affair set in Indonesia during the overthrow of President Sukarno. It follows a group of foreign correspondents in Jakarta on the eve of an attempted coup by the so-called 30 September Movement on 30 September 1965 and during the beginning of the violent reprisals by military-led vigilante groups who killed hundreds of thousands.

The film stars Mel Gibson as Guy Hamilton, an Australian journalist, and Sigourney Weaver as Jill Bryant, a British Embassy officer. It also stars Linda Hunt as the male dwarf Billy Kwan, Gibson’s local photographer contact, a role for which Hunt won an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress.[1] The film was shot in both Australia and the Philippines and includes Australian actors Bill Kerr as Colonel Henderson and Noel Ferrier as Wally O’Sullivan.

It was banned from being shown in Indonesia until 1999.[2] The title The Year of Living Dangerously is a quote which refers to a famous Italian phrase used by Sukarno; vivere pericoloso, meaning “living dangerously”

The soundtrack, of Indonesian gamelan, is also beautiful and haunting.

6) The China Syndrome, 1979, starring Jane Fonda as a new, eager, totally dismissed television news reporter who discovers a leak at a local nuclear power reactor, as described to her by an employee there, played by Jack Lemmon. What life was like, (and still is) for some female reporters trying to get their producers’ attention for a serious story.

7) The Killing Fields, 1984. The true story of the relationship between an American reporter, Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian fixer and interpreter, Dith Pran, who later came to work for The New York Times as a photographer.

From Dith’s Times‘ 2008 obituary:

The film, directed by Roland Joffé, showed Mr. Schanberg, played by Sam Waterston, arranging for Mr. Dith’s wife and children to be evacuated from Phnom Penh as danger mounted. Mr. Dith, portrayed by Dr. Haing S. Ngor (who won an Academy Award as best supporting actor), insisted on staying in Cambodia with Mr. Schanberg to keep reporting the news. He believed that his country could be saved only if other countries grasped the gathering tragedy and responded…

Mr. Schanberg returned to the United States and was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his reporting from Cambodia. He accepted it on behalf of Mr. Dith as well.

For years there was no news of Mr. Dith, except for a false rumor that he had been fed to alligators. His brother had been. After more than four years of beatings, backbreaking labor and a diet of a tablespoon of rice a day, Mr. Dith escaped over the Thai border on Oct. 3, 1979. An overjoyed Mr. Schanberg flew to greet him.

“To all of us who have worked as foreign reporters in frightening places,” Bill Keller, the executive editor of The Times, said on Sunday, “Pran reminds us of a special category of journalistic heroism — the local partner, the stringer, the interpreter, the driver, the fixer, who knows the ropes, who makes your work possible, who often becomes your friend, who may save your life, who shares little of the glory, and who risks so much more than you do.”

Mr. Dith moved to New York and in 1980 became a photographer for The Times, where he was noted for his imaginative pictures of city scenes and news events

8) Almost Famous. Fun! Any eager young journo, let alone one who’s spent any time around the bizarreness of the music industry, will enjoy this 2000 film. Based on a true story of a young and ambitious music writer. The best scene? How Cameron Crowe “negotiates” his Rolling Stone story fee higher through stunned silence.

9) Capote. I loved this 2005 film. Dark, scary, filled with mutual manipulation of murderous sources and the ambitious writer of “In Cold Blood”, Truman Capote. Such dealings happen, it rarely gets talked about, rarely gets acknowledged and needs to. The images, music and Capote’s ruthless behavior haunt me still. Stars Philip Seymour Hoffman and Catherine Keener.

10) Missing,1982. A powerful and searing film about an American journalist missing in Chile. Starring Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek. I found this film almost unbearably painful to watch because, as an undergraduate college student in Toronto, I worked as a volunteer translator for Chilean refugees of torture who came to Canada for political refuge. I learned from them how many of the film’s gruesome details were real.

From Wikipedia:

It is based on the true story of American journalist Charles Horman, who disappeared in the bloody aftermath of the US-backed Chilean coup of 1973 that deposed Leftist President Salvador Allende.

The film was banned in Chile during Pinochet‘s regime, even though the nation is not mentioned by name in the film (although the Chilean cities of Viña del Mar and Santiago are).[1] Both the film and Thomas Hauser’s book The Execution of Charles Horman were removed from the market, following a lawsuit filed against Costa-Gavras and Universal’s parent company MCA by former Ambassador Nathaniel Davis, and two others. A lawsuit against Hauser himself was dismissed because the statute of limitations had passed. Davis and his compatriots lost the lawsuit. After the lawsuit, the film was again released by Universal in 2006.[citation needed]

Here are some others’ opinions on the best J-films ever…and here…and a British journo’s tight list of only five.

Will there be some legendary, can’t-miss future classic film made about….blogging? The thrumming and humming of all those…WordPresses firing up?

I think not.

25 thoughts on “The 10 Best Journalism Movies Ever Made

  1. Caitlin Kelly

    Great film, too. It would be tough for me to move any of these from the list…I look forward to hearing about all the other omissions!

  2. ncfrommke

    I’d have included either “The Front Page”, or it’s remake (one of the very rare remakes that are as good or better than the original), “His Girl Friday”. They’re both as cynical and wise as any of the more current films, and they’re both pants-pissing funny. But taste is infinitely variable, and your ten are all good movies. Still, if you haven’t seen either of my suggestions, you should- I promise you that you’ll enjoy them.

  3. Leor Galil

    It may not attain a “classic” status, but “Shattered Glass” has all the elements of a great journalism film. And it’s got a key moment for Internet journalism neatly packaged into the plot.

    And though I haven’t seen it, Julie & Julia is partly about a blogger… The possibilities of blogging in film are endless, so who knows what may be a future classic on that forefront.

  4. Caitlin Kelly

    Barbara, I did see and enjoy it; not sure it’s my fave.

    Leor, I saw Julie & Julia a few times and really enjoyed it, but I prefer the old school films about more traditional journalism, i.e. newspapers or radio. I wonder when we’ll see the last printed newspaper and these films will be our only record of what that fun, crazy world was like. I have by far preferred my daily paper gigs to magazine work.

  5. libtree09

    Okay not a bad list.

    You do need a bit of a scolding. You must see Front Page and in all its incarnations His Girl Friday is my favorite. This is not for your film education but as a tribute to the play’s author, Ben Hecht. Now this was a guy who worked in the heyday of newspapers had his own column, then moved to on to plays, novels, short stories and became a screenplay god in Hollywood and even stooped to be a producer for fun.

    Of course one could read one of his books but he loved writing for Hollywood, it was his favorite gig, “I’m a Hollywood writer, so I put on my sports jacket and take off my brain.” He said.

    So go see and add to your list.

    And while you’re at it how about Salvador? Can’t go wrong with angry liberals like James Woods and Oliver Stone.

  6. Caitlin Kelly

    ebizjoey, Erin Brockovich — one of my favorite films — is about a parelegal, not a journo, so I’m not sure how it would qualify for this list.

    libtree, consider me duly scolded; these films are now top of my Netflix pile.

  7. citifieddoug

    I suppose it’s your status as a pro that puts The Paper over All The President’s Men. I couldn’t have considered that, although I like “The Argus” for the name of a paper.

  8. Caitlin Kelly

    doug, the list is not in order of preference.

    I like these films equally, although I’d still put The Year of Living Dangerously at the top. The music, the suspense, the love story. It captured everything that made me want to become a foreign correspondent which was my lifelong dream. When I got to the Daily News, I better understood its insanity after seeing The Paper.

  9. Caitlin Kelly

    Todd, I enjoyed it, especially Helen Mirren as the tough editor, and I think it did accurately capture the uneasy relationships between the web kids and the print fogies within many newsrooms today. Not sure if it’s a classic…

  10. I haven’t seen it since I was about 10, so I need to watch it again – but what about “Salvador?”

    As an Asia-junkie, just thought I’d add:

    “The Killing Fields” is credited by academia with prompting the launch of the 1991 Paris peace talks and then the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodia, which brought a (meandering) end to the civil war that followed the Khmer Rouge years. No small feat, for a film.

    However, I know Asia-beat journos who get terribly cranky about “The Year of Living Dangerously.” It’s drippingly romantic, but that’s the problem: Mel Gibson pursued his love, sure — but he walked out on the story of his career.

  11. Caitlin Kelly

    What I also like about Killing Fields is that the “characters” are real people. I attended Dith Pran’s funeral (because I know the photo dept. of the NYT where he worked for years) and it was hard to believe what a role in history he had.

    Interesting take on Gibson’s walking out on a story. I have seen so many relationships crushed under the heel of journalistic ambition that this might be why it so appealed to me. It’s the choice so few would really make.

  12. Caitlin, here’s an oft-forgotten classic for your Netflix list: “Call Northside 777” (1948) starring Jimmy Stewart as an investigative reporter in Chicago working to clear a man from a wrongful conviction. A documentary-style film noir, Wikipedia says, based on a true story.

    More than a little irony in this one, too, considering all the wrongful convictions that have been overturned, since then, in Chicago.

  13. Caitlin Kelly

    Jeff, thanks — lots of ideas for my netflix list. Doug, I saw and enjoyed Roman Holiday, but didn’t really think of it being focused on journalism.

  14. achtung

    Great list, thanks. I really liked Zodiac (2007). The main plot is not about journalism but I think the atmosphere of a major newspaper in its time is captured well.

  15. fishcough

    “Roman Holiday” should definitely be on this list. Gregory Peck, especially at the end, is the very model of the principled newsman. Eddie Albert, as his photographer, is also pitch-perfect as he shows Peck the great photos he got of Audrey Hepburn’s unsuspecting princess, nearly luring Peck back into writing his $5,000 front page story (their enthusiasm as they spitball captions and headlines rings authentic). When — *spoiler alert* — the two of them finally surrender their killer scoop to save the princess from embarrassment, I dare any journalist not to be moved. The final image of Peck, head held high, walking out of the palace remains, for this writer, an inspiration to value the subject’s “faith in relations between people” above personal advancement. Required viewing for all journalism students.

  16. Caitlin Kelly

    Thanks…I like the very idea that the words “principled” and “newsman” still belong in the same sentence. Look at that film — and the current endless paparazzi images of Lohan et al stumbling and in trouble. Boy, have times changed.

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