Spotlight Illuminates the Top Ten Journalist Heroes and Heels in the Movies

Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole — the eternal dilemma.
Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole — the eternal dilemma.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, opening November 13 in local theaters (and screening Friday, November 6, in Boulder), details how the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church’s child molestation scandal in 2002. The newspaper's work won major awards, and the film is now being prepped for Oscar reception, getting talked up almost everywhere as a serious film. (But then, so was Michael Keaton’s last newspaper drama, Ron Howard’s dismal 1994 The Paper.) Ironically, the film isn't getting talked up that much in newspapers — because there aren’t that many newspapers anymore, and certainly not newspapers doing major investigative journalism.

Journalists have always loved movies about journalists, of course. And there have been plenty of them, in part because many of cinema's most gifted screenwriters and directors started off as reporters. The practice of cranking out something resembling sense in a hurry is a versatile and admirable skill suited to both professions.

Spotlight Illuminates the Top Ten Journalist Heroes and Heels in the Movies

The romantic stereotype of the hard-bitten, fast-talking, cynical, hustling newshound was created by Ben Hecht and Charlie MacArthur (Chicago newspapermen who both wound up Oscar winners) in their hit 1927 play, The Front Page. The stereotypical journalist heroes wisecrack their way through mystery and danger. Like private detectives in films, they are expected to delve into darkness for us, to reveal truth. They are supposed to be immune to influence, accommodation, or pressure; remain brave and tough, subject to the special criteria of a trade that is sometimes supposed to be a crusade as well.

But there's another stereotype, too. Other filmmakers see journalists as vultures, parasites, blackmailers, deceivers, exploiters and worse. And what about the antiheroes, freaks, town drunks and seers, the Citizen Kanes, the Howard Beales, Marcello in La Dolce Vita, Dutton Peabody in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and Hunter S. Thompson in all his cinematic manifestations? Out of hundreds of choices, here are some of the biggest saints and sinners in movie journalism:

HEROES

The dream team — Hoffman and Redford in All the President's Men
The dream team — Hoffman and Redford in All the President's Men

1) Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford)
All the President’s Men, 1976

Pretty much every person who became a journalist in modern times did so because of this film. It’s a rigorously detailed examination of American reporting’s high-water mark: two plucky young mavericks following a story that became the Watergate scandal, righting wrong and taking down the highest official in the land. The underdogs win, and freedom of the press is reaffirmed. And it’s a buddy movie. What’s not to like?

Strathain as Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck..
Strathain as Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck..

2) Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn)
Good Night, and Good Luck., 2005

Who had more gravitas than Murrow, who stood nonchalantly on London rooftops as bombs dropped around him in 1940, calmly describing the scene for radio listeners? The pioneering CBS broadcaster’s confrontation with the Red Scare and Senator Joseph McCarthy is given its due here. Strathairn’s quiet, rapid monotone and unblinking chain-smoking as Murrow is unnerving.

3) Philip Schuyler Green/’Phil Greenberg’ (Gregory Peck)
Gentleman’s Agreement, 1947

“Some people don’t like other people just because they’re Jews.” Supergoy reporter Gregory Peck feigns a state of Hebraeity to see if people really are anti-Semitic. Guess what? They are! In fact, they’re really mean to him, but it all works out, and he writes a big, successful story about it, and he doesn’t have to pretend he's Jewish anymore, as this evidently fixed everything. And the film won three Oscars.

4) Joseph W. Randall (Edward G. Robinson)
Five Star Final, 1931

Randall starts out as a sleazeball, a renegade editor at an exploitation-minded tabloid that caters to the lowest common denominator. (Ah, nothing changes.) Sensationalism and outright lies crowd the front page, as rival dailies fight for circulation. Finally, Randall digs up an old scandal that sets off a chain reaction of suicides. His heroic moment comes at the end, as he gets religion and tells his publisher where to stick it: “I’m through with your dirty rag, and I’m through with you!”

Spotlight Illuminates the Top Ten Journalist Heroes and Heels in the Movies

5) Clark Kent (Various actors)
Film, TV and animation, 1941-present

Oh, come on, we can’t leave out Superman! It was a stroke of genius to make the Man of Steel a journalist, giving him the ability to poke his nose into wrongdoing at will. Plus, he can type so fast! It does get a bit annoying when no one can figure out that Clark Kent is Superman, or when he winks at the camera to let us know he knows we know. It’s not that cool, Superman: They’re just dumb.

HEELS

6) Wayne Gale (Robert Downey Jr.)
Natural Born Killers, 1994

As the host of American Maniacs, Gale makes protagonists Mickey and Mallory celebrities, covering every moment of their over-the-top, gruesome lives until his very end. Robert Downey Jr., plagued by paparazzi for decades himself, must have relished the role. In theaters, audiences cheered when the journalist character is killed.

7) Wally Cook (Fredric March)
Nothing Sacred, 1937

Wally Cook is an absolute bastard. After being caught faking sensational news one too many times, he’s relegated to writing the obits. Begging for another chance, he is sent to cover a dying woman’s last days. It turns out she’s not dying, but that doesn’t stop Wally. Complications ensue. This is a classic screwball comedy, with the immortal lines: “I’ll tell you briefly what I think of newspapermen. The hand of God, reaching down into the mire, couldn’t elevate one of them to the depths of degradation!”

Spotlight Illuminates the Top Ten Journalist Heroes and Heels in the Movies

8) Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas)
Ace in the Hole, 1951

Kirk Douglas is Evil with a chin in Ace in the Hole, a reporter fired from eleven newspapers who winds up working for a paper in Albuquerque. When he finds a local man trapped in a cave, he prolongs and orchestrates his rescue in order to whip up a media frenzy with himself at the center, all while fooling around with the guy’s wife. Billy Wilder does here to journalism what he did to the corporation with The Apartment and sexual identity in Some Like It Hot – he steamrolls it with scorn.

9) Addison DeWitt (George Sanders)
All About Eve, 1950

“You’ve been talking to that venomous fishwife Addison DeWitt!” Only urbane George Sanders could play the perfectly mean theater critic DeWitt with such aplomb. He ruins people’s careers with his reviews; takes young, naïve actresses to bed (here, Marilyn Monroe), and is in all other ways a complete cad. Only his not-so-divine intervention prevents disaster at the film’s end, when he traps an up-and-coming schemer into servitude.

Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success
Lancaster as J.J. Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success

10) J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster)
Sweet Smell of Success, 1957

Lancaster plays a powerful Broadway gossip columnist: sadistic, spiteful and unhealthily obsessed with his sister. He’s more like a Medici prince than a reporter, with Tony Curtis as his scheming toady, Falco. Beyond portraying journalism perverted into a racket, Sweet Smell gives us a memorable archetype – that loathsome, reprehensible person who must be catered to only because he wields power.

The Boulder International Film Festival is hosting a free advance screening of Spotlight at 7:30 p.m. Friday, November 6, on the University of Colorado campus; visit gofobo.com/BIFFSpotlight to download a complimentary pass for two. (Passes do not guarantee admission.)


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