By Stephanie Zacharek
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This is a strange time for Hollywood to revive newspaper movies. Despite their obvious saintliness, reporters rank just north of lawyers and child molesters on the nation's current list of heroes--and I'm not talking here only of the "Elvis Shot JFK" brand of journalism. These days, the public--and the White House--regard even such stately institutions as the New York Times and the Washington Post as screeching birds of prey. Sometimes, the readers are right.
So it's a mystery why Ron Howard (or any other movie director) thinks Americans are interested in the ancient virtues of the news hound. But those are what he extols in The Paper, and there are apparently some other like-minded movies on the way--including one featuring Nick Nolte and Julia Roberts as glamorized newspaper folk.
But let's back up a little.
Howard (Backdraft, Parenthood) and his collaborators, baby-faced screenwriter David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito's Way) and big brother Stephen Koepp, who's an editor at Time, don't exactly dust off the hard-drinking, trench-coated, fast-talking-cynic-with-a-heart-of-gold prototype portrayed by Gable, Bogart or Rosalind Russell in the golden age of black-and-white. They leave it to the Coen brothers to do just that with Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy. Howard and company don't idealize Woodward and Bernstein, either. Wrong era. Instead, their idea is to examine hard-charging, blue-collar newspaper journalism in the Nineties, and how it conflicts with (what's this?) so-called normal family life.
The fictional New York Sun, where Michael Keaton is harried metro editor Henry Hackett, is a flashy tabloid like New York's Post or Daily News. Neither an impeccably tailored "paper of record" nor the kind of serviceable but square publications Denverites find snoozing in their rose bushes each morning, the Sun prints front-page screamers about the latest half-plastered subway driver to jump the tracks in Queens, and it runs penile-implant charts on page eight. Feisty, urgent and semi-sleazy, it's always on the verge of bankruptcy from scrapping with the other dailies, all-news radio and the boob tube.
The Koepp brothers' own lead story won't win any Pulitzers. Or Oscars. When a couple of visiting white businessmen wind up dead in Brooklyn with racial slurs sprayed on their car, the cops pinch a pair of innocent black kids spotted near the scene. That story simmers and rages and mutates over the next frantic 24 hours as Keaton searches for the Truth--at least today's Truth. Meanwhile, the moviemakers make every excuse to cram in a few tons of subplots, supporting players, office jargon and wisecracks.
Marisa Tomei is Hackett's ultrapregnant wife, Marty, a former ace reporter still addicted to the chase. Glenn Close is the imperious, self-serving managing editor with whom Henry feuds. Robert Duvall is the crusty editor-in-chief ("Every day you start from zero") whose personal life and prostate gland are both a mess. Rumpled-but-right-on columnist Randy Quaid sleeps on an office couch until 3 p.m., then springs magically to life. The rest of the boozy, neurotic, deluded city-side staffers bicker and barge their way through the day. They are all familiar, entertaining types, especially if you've hung around any city rooms. Except for Quaid's laconic McDougal, no one ever sleeps.
McDougal and Henry Hackett--that's right, Hack-ett--immediately smell a rat in the morning's murder bust, and eventually get to the bottom of a good, hard news story. But that's by no means the only thing on Henry's overloaded mind. He's got the 11 a.m. meeting, a midmorning job interview to screw up over at the smug, buttoned-up New York Sentinel (read Times), many ruffled feathers to smooth, the 3 p.m. meeting, a wife desperately unhappy about her future as a mother, a slew of deadlines to meet and a dinner date with his stuffy in-laws to ruin. Make book on it: Henry will work late. Again.
Before the final edition finally hits the streets, the filmmakers also throw in an emergency Caesarean section, a mad dash to a precinct house to extract a quote, a ludicrous fistfight in the middle of the press run, an aggrieved, drunken public official with a gun in his hand and the momentary redemption of an in-house sellout.
Get the idea this is is one overstuffed, frenetic melodrama? It means to be.
What The Paper does best is transmit the adrenaline rush of daily competition--the drug that keeps underpaid news hounds in the hunt and battling. "Today! Now!" Keaton shouts across the newsroom, working his troops into a lather. That's always been daily journalism's cry of life, even when Bogey was editor. Neither the Sun nor any other sheet pretends to produce literature. But as Quaid rather grandly announces, most publications this side of the National Enquirer still take pride in getting their facts straight. What The Paper glosses, though, is the increasing influence the supermarket scandal sheets have on legitimate publications (witness the Whitewater affair) and how the low-wattage cult of celebrity that was once "TV news" has infected the newspaper business. Here, both nettlesome issues are MIA.
Oh, well. This is only a newspaper movie, and a pretty entertaining one at that. The Paper is funny, and it's reasonably spiced with old truths and grubby realities. Howard's new wrinkles, meanwhile, are firmly grounded in the grand old game's invasion by yuppie culture, including the triple scourges of sobriety, smokelessness and real estate speculation. Who knows. Moviegoers who detest that fictional monolith now known as "the media" might even like it more than they think.
But don't put that on page one just yet. If the ever-optimistic Opie, er, Ron Howard, is suddenly able to sanctify newspaper types as he did firefighters, then maybe man really does bite dog. Hold the presses, okay?
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