Honey, get me rewrite — the newspaper movie has risen from the dead. Again.
When “Spotlight” opens in Boston on Friday, riding a wave of early buzz and Oscar talk, moviegoers will be treated to a starry big-screen dramatization of how Globe reporters in 2002 covered the story of the Catholic Church’s coverup of the pedophile priest crisis. But audiences will also be stepping into a wayback machine to a time when newsroom movies were part of the pop culture vernacular, with conventions and clichés and cornball dialogue (see above) all their own.
What’s curious is how Hollywood has never been able to make up its mind whether journalists represent the best of America or its worst possible impulses. Are they fearless freedom fighters and crusaders for justice, or truth-impaired sleazeballs who’d sell out their sainted mothers for a scoop? Heroes or heels? And is that duality the stuff of comedy or melodrama?
This isn’t a review of “Spotlight” — that will come closer to when the movie opens — but more of a meditation on the various roles the Fourth Estate has played in the popular imagination over the years, rising and falling with the prevailing cultural temperature. You can almost tell the era by the way the movies portray the reporters.
The most obvious example is “All the President’s Men,” which came along in 1976 as we were patting ourselves on the back for purging the body politic of Richard Nixon and dirty tricks. Which wouldn’t have been possible without the dogged investigative work of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, duly enshrined in cinema history in their Hollywood incarnations, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. From the dropped ceilings and fluorescent lighting to crusty editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) in the corner office, “Men” set the standard for the modern newspaper movie, one in which the protagonists are presented as workaholic heroes.
That didn’t last. By 1981, “Absence of Malice” featured Sally Field as a reporter who rushes unsubstantiated stories into print, gets manipulated by prosecutors, prompts a source to commit suicide, and sleeps with one of her subjects, who, in her defense, is played by Paul Newman. Other than that, she’s not a bad sort. It was the early Reagan era and the mood had turned suspicious; suddenly the phrase “liberal media” was a scare tactic instead of praise. The people asking questions? They were either naïve or evil, and they certainly had it in for the common man.
This dialectic — reporters good! No, reporters bad! — replicates itself across the history of the movies, sometimes leaning to one side, sometimes to the other, occasionally playing right down the middle. The Depression years of early talkies and pre-Motion Picture Code rawness introduced many of the most enjoyable newsroom-movie stereotypes, as attested to by 1934’s “It Happened One Night” (Clark Gable as a snappy reporter on the road with runaway heiress Claudette Colbert) and 1933’s “Picture Snatcher” (a riotous Jimmy Cagney as an early paparazzo). As early as the 1931 classic “The Front Page,” fast-talking newsmen were presented as farcical heroes of the modern age — while movies like the Edward G. Robinson vehicle “Five Star Final” were bemoaning the ethics-free nature of the tabloids. (Beware any news outlet where Boris Karloff is cast as a reporter.)
The 1940s began with the greatest movie ever about a newspaper baron (many believe it’s the greatest movie ever, period), Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane,” and came to a close with “Call Northside 777,” in which Jimmy Stewart plays a reporter turning detective to free a man wrongly imprisoned for murder. “Kane” was based on William Randolph Hearst, “Northside” was based on a true case of miscarried justice, and both were cinematized with high directorial style.
Which is the great, forgivable lie of newsroom movies — they take the absurdly undramatic job of gathering and publishing information and pump it up with every trick in the studio playbook. Those montages of spinning papers! The cynical reporters, male and female (see 1940’s “His Girl Friday,” please), spitting out perfect comebacks! The giant printing presses delivering the truth at 40 pages a second! Humphrey Bogart nails it at the end of 1952’s “Deadline, U.S.A.,” when he holds the phone receiver up to the printer’s room clackety-clack and tells the fat-cat gangster at the other end, “That’s the press, baby — the press. And there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Which can be pretty scary, if the people writing the stories and running the presses are as unscrupulous as some fear. “Ace in the Hole” (1951) probably wins the trophy for All-Time Worst Movie Reporter, with Kirk Douglas audaciously opportunistic as a newshound keeping a man trapped in a cave until it becomes a national story and advances the reporter’s career. But “Scandal Sheet” (1952, editor murders his wife and his best reporter solves the crime) and the mesmerizing “Sweet Smell of Success” (1957), with Burt Lancaster as an incestuous monster freak of a gossip columnist, come awfully close.
These days, the mixed messages often arrive packaged in the same movie, as if to say: We recognize that we need you journalists, and you’re often quite entertaining, but we don’t actually trust you. Ron Howard’s “The Paper” (1994) casts Michael Keaton as an editor — a role he reprises to much subtler effect in “Spotlight” — in a manic “Network”-wannabe that climaxes in a physical fight over the presses between Keaton and Glenn Close. (Sorry, doesn’t happen.) “Shattered Glass” (2003) explores the fallout after a reporter (Hayden Christensen, playing disgraced New Republic correspondent Stephen Glass) is exposed as a serial liar — the evil is purged and the institution (barely) survives.
As we move deeper into the Internet era, though, the newspaper movie starts to sigh with quickening nostalgia. “The Fifth Estate,” from 2013, strains to illustrate how news outlets like The New York Times and England’s The Guardian hold the line of responsible grown-up journalism against loose cannons like Julian Assange (Benedict Cumberbatch in a fright wig). Go ahead and get your news from Twitter, the movie warns, but you’ll be sorry if you turn around one day and your daily paper is gone.
An exaggeration? Obviously. Real-world investigative journalism is in many ways stronger and more valued than ever, especially next to the post first/verify later ethos of some Web outlets. What has changed, perhaps, is the place in the culture for a good, old-fashioned newsroom flick. “Spotlight,” which dramatizes an investigation that took place a mere 14 years ago, at times plays like a love letter from the past. How ironic if it turns out to be the movie of the moment.