Hacks on Film: Essential viewing and reading

This is an updated version of an article I first wrote for The Spectator blog, that formed the basis of a lecture to journalism students at Kingston University in October. It has links to scripts, films and articles about all the movies I reference in the lecture. Plus there are some more for anyone interested in how journalists have been portrayed on film over the years and what such movies reveal about the profession, the politics and social attitudes of their time, and how much hasn’t really changed.

When I got my first job in journalism —as a BBC graduate News Trainee fresh out of university – my father bought me the video of Citizen Kane (1941) and my brother got me Broadcast News (1987). Both turned out to be important to my career in different ways and explain why I feel so passionately about how journalism is portrayed in the movies.

The best film ever about TV journalism?

I used the Citizen Kane video to make a report about its 50th anniversary on our
trainee Newsnight programme. Egged on by my fellow trainees who said it was
really good, I channelled young Mr Orson Welles himself, walked up to the 7th
floor corridor of TV Centre and took it to the editor of Newsnight the same day,
boldly suggested they might like to run it. They didn’t, but I was soon a trainee
there and within 2 years, a Newsnight reporter. Thank you Mr Kane.

But it was Broadcast News – made only 5 years before I joined the profession myself, that set the benchmark for journalism on film. James L Brooks, who cut his teeth in 60s TV said he wasn’t interested in the world of TV news, but the relationships. And yet it remains, for me, the most accurate portrayal of my profession ever made. The film celebrates with humour and charm the intellectual ambition of talented journos and the excitement of the work (Holly Hunter’s Norman Rockwell edit that barely makes it to air); the egos (Jack Nicholson’s cameo network Anchor) the office politics and TV attitudes to talent (Albert Brooks is talented but not anchor material; William Hurt looks the part
but is struggling to “get” the stuff he’s reporting on) and the way long running
stories are viewed from HQ: Hunter and Brooks head off to Nicaragua to prove
they are heavy weights; Hunter sends her love rival, Lois Chiles, off to cover an
Alaskan serial killer’s’ trial. The film is framed by the characters contemplating,
sometimes helplessly and regretfully, the decline of journalistic standards. You can read the script here.

Broadcast News was a combination of intelligent soap and a throwback to the Hollywood of “grownup” sparring reporters – Spencer Tracey and Katherine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942) and Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940)

But more than, that it turned out to be accurate. Most of the things that have
happened in that film, right down to the periodic mass sackings, have become a
reality across my profession. The film managed to humanise the hacks and their wretched love lives, but did not sentimentalise us or our world. It even threw in an ethical dilemma – (SPOILER ALERT) and after all the fakery scandals I’ve seen over the past 2 decades, I find it interesting how my attitude has changed significantly to the crucial scene in which it’s revealed that William Hurt faked a tear for his cutaway, interviewing a rape survivor.

But I blame another blond Hollywood leading man for the trash that has come to dominate the Big Screen’s portrayal of my profession. Yes, I know Robert Redford was in All The President’s Men (1976) and Three Days of the Condor (1975) –a conspiracy thriller fantasy which climaxes in a Wikileaks style victory as his envelopes of secret documents land safely in the offices of the New York Times.

But this man is responsible for the truly execrable Up Close and Personal (1996) with Michelle Pfeiffer. Remarkably, this film started out as an intelligent biopic script about one of America’s first female news anchors, Jessica Savitch, scripted by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne. You will have to dig out the TV movie Almost Golden to find out about the sex discrimination and personal tragedy of her life and her notoriously volatile temperament.

For all its faults, there’s a chilling scene in which hostile producers refuse to brief her over her earpiece as she’s live commentating on a breaking event. You can also read the scathing account of the metamorphosis of Up Close and Personal in Didion and Gregory Dunne’s book, Monster. Here’s a clip of the real Jessica, filmed in rehearsal, in full flow.

Up Close and Personal is the Showgirls of TV journalism. It’s tawdry, exploitative and hideously sentimental in a way that real hacks could only dream of. I’ve lost count of the number of times it’s come up in conversation with fellow journos, ending with howls of derision.

Pfeiffer, a poor Southern weather girl, on the make, complete with fake TV
name Tally Atwater, finds her pre-shoot in a jail turned into a live nationwide
broadcast when a riots breaks out, despite a lack of any cables out of the camera.
Some black and Latino men die hideously, and it’s all for us to feel how special
Ms Atwater is. It makes her career and she never has to do a piece of original
journalism again. Just read autocue with different coloured hair. Any time a
sense of irony might be creeping in, Robert Redford looms up for the romance,
his ageing face barely visible in the blur of the soft focus as the once great
producer, who’s on the way down. . I think it was supposed to be a remake of A
Star is Born
. But no one laughed when James Mason died at the end of that.
Although James Mason wasn’t blown up at the end by generic evil non-blond
militants. With the live camera running…

What Up Close and Personal did mark out was a sub genre of Cinderella films ,
in which childlike girls found their princes while negotiating a Barbie-glamorous
grown up career in, like, journalism. The Devil Wears Prada, Superman Returns,
and, judging by the trailer, Morning Glory.

I must confess to having a soft spot for one such film though. And there is a sort of relevance, in the light of the undercover police/environmentalist campaigners story, to Straight Talk (1992).  This guilty pleasure of mine features the flawless James Woods as the hardnosed Chicago newspaper hack romancing talk radio agony aunt Doctor Shirlee (Dolly Parton) to find out if she’s a fake doctor.

She is. A graduate only of the southern University of Life. There is a scene
involving her bra and the phrase “holy moly” that Katie Price would be proud of.
The film also features Spalding Gray, and the then unknown Michael Madsen and
Teri Hatcher. But beyond the fairytale an ethical dilemma presents itself, too,
as Woods pulls his story rather than destroy the woman he loves and she comes
clean about who she really is. Sniff. The original poster even shows her sitting on a pumpkin.

I finish with a list of films about journalists– worth checking out for what they
say about the times they were made, as much as whether they are accurate or
not:

The first 4 are classic Conspiracy Thrillers:

The Parallax View (1974) – Made 6 years after the Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King assassinations, Warren Beatty plays the reporter uncovering a sinister plot behind political killings.

Capricorn One (1977) Elliot Gould is the hack who discovers NASA’s first manned mission to Mars is being faked from a TV studio in the Western desert. An outstanding ending. Stars OJ Simpson as one of the 3 astronauts.

Defence of the Realm (1985) – the last film to capture old Fleet Street at work.
Gabriel Byrne negotiates a rather imitative London conspiracy thriller, complete
with envelope handovers on Hungerford Bridge and a doomed Denholm Elliott
as ageing alcoholic hack, but is strong on the atmosphere of smoky copy rooms,
rattling hot metal presses, and the ritual “banging out” of retiring print workers.
Greta Scaachi looks great in a trenchcoat.

The Ghost (2010) The plot unravels into a lame rather than believable 70s conspiracy thriller, but Ewan MacGregor and Pierce Brosnan turn in fascinating performances in this
atmospheric exploration of the instincts of a good reporter who sold out,
uncovering the secrets of an ex-prime minister.

Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) – Frank Capra’s film features a sinister sequence near the end where corrupt politicians, powerful business moguls and the police collude to intimidate an honest politician (James Stewart) and threaten the citizens of his home town. Fascinating watching since Hackgate.

Anchorman(2004)  Under the cover of being set in the 70s, this combines fantasy streetfighting between rival network gangs with anti-diversity arguments that stretch only a little beyond reality:

Brick Tamland: [opposing women in the newsroom] I read somewhere their
periods attract bears. Bears can smell the menstruation.
Brian Fantana: Well, that’s just great. You hear that, Ed? Bears. Now
you’re putting the whole station in jeopardy.

Superman (1978) Superman II (1980) Unlike the wretched “reboot” of Superman Returns with teenage mum Lois Lane – the originals feature growups. The scenes in the newsroom of the Daily Planet are highly atmospheric. Terence Stamp’s terrorising of America via live TV is genuinely chilling. The humiliation of the President in the Oval office takes place months apart from Jimmy Carter’s real life humiliation over the Iranian hostage drama, that was regularly played out on American TV news. Chain smoking hardnosed Margot Kidder’s greatest moment is when she climbs the Eiffel Tower to get her scoop, spelling out “P-U-L-I-T-Z-E-R “ to calm her nerves.

Network (1976) In our world of “infotainment”, how much of this Oscar winning film about pushing TV news ratings with aggression and violence is really fantasy anymore?
Faye Dunaway is a role model for today’s TV execs.

True Crime (1999) Reporter Clint Eastwood and his editor James Woods battle it out in the newsroom as the clock ticks to save an innocent man from the electric chair. Eastwood plays a kind of ageing Dirty Hack rather than Harry who could redeem himself with this one story. It is very, very silly.

Ace In the Hole (1951) Kirk Douglas and Billy Wilder concocted this nasty little tale about the heartless reporter trying to make his fortune when a miner is trapped underground. Sound familiar? Spike Lee paid homage to the famous end shot near the start of Malcolm X.

Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs (2009) This intelligent Fast Food Nation-style allegory about modern Western consumption features a fascinating subplot about the exploited female intern turned investigative weather reporter who is mocked by the sexist news anchor for not looking glamorous enough; and pressured to play down her intelligence on camera. Delicious.

About samiraahmed

Journalist. Writer. Broadcaster.
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