Those of us who work at newspapers – we used to be called “ink-stained wretches” – can’t help but love movies where the good guys triumph by breaking a big story.
The latest of these is Steven Spielberg’s The Post, which opens throughout Israel on Thursday. It stars Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Kay Graham and Tom Hanks as editor Ben Bradlee, and the triumph the movie celebrates is the Post’s decision to publish the Pentagon Papers, which were leaked by Daniel Ellsberg in 1971 and revealed a government cover-up about the Vietnam War.
This exhilarating story is part of a long tradition of newspaper movies, where the climax inevitably comes as papers roll off the presses, are packaged into bundles and loaded on trucks that race out into the city.
It may all seem hopelessly 20th century to younger readers, but for those of us who grew up loving newspapers, the battle to get a story that needs telling into print will always be our Star Wars
, our Avatar
, our Justice
League, and our weapons of choice words, paper and ink.
The last prominent newspaper film before The Post
, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 2016. This fact-based drama about the team of reporters on the Spotlight section of The Boston Globe
who worked doggedly to reveal the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of pedophilia among the clergy ended with newspapers being loaded onto trucks.
Although the movie is set in the early 2000s, it seems as if it all happened long ago, because, sadly, it’s so rare in these days of cutbacks for newspapers to be able to commit the kind of resources the Spotlight team was given to investigate stories. It features a great cast, with Michael Keaton as an editor who risks alienating friends in the Church by pursuing the story. Mark Ruffalo plays the angriest of the reporters and his big moment is a speech where he says, “They knew, and they let it happen! It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us!” John Slattery (best known as Roger
Sterling on Mad Men
) plays Globe
editor Ben Bradlee Jr., the son of Ben Bradlee. Liev Schreiber has the role of Marty Baron, the newly appointed Globe
editor who pushed the team to stick with the story. In another link to The Post
, Baron is now the editor of the Washington Post
, the ultimate newspaper movie was unquestionably Alan J. Pakula’s All the President
(1976), about how Washington Post
reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) broke the Watergate story in the early ’70s. Jason Robards won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his portrayal of Ben Bradlee.
In a rousing speech, Bradlee tells the two young reporters, “Nothing’s riding on this – except the First Amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters. But if you guys f*ck up again, I’m going to get mad.” The movie also popularized the phrase, “Follow the money,” which Woodward’s source – nicknamed Deep Throat – uses to steer the reporters in the right direction.
The newspaper business is at the heart of the movie many consider the greatest film ever made, Citizen Kane
(1941), a fictionalized story of the life of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. The central character is Charles Foster Kane, played by the 25-year-old wunderkind Welles, who also co-wrote and directed it.
Inheriting an oil fortune at a very young age, he buys a newspaper because he thinks it will be fun.
Admonished by his trustee that he has lost a million dollars on the newspaper in his first year as owner, he replies, “You’re right, I did lose a million dollars last year. I expect to lose a million dollars this year. I expect to lose a million dollars next year. You know, Mr. Thatcher, at the rate of a million dollars a year, I’ll have to close this place in... 60 years.”
Hearst was angry at this portrayal of him and used his newspapers and fortune to try to prevent the movie’s release. In the end, he succeeded in limiting the film’s distribution. But the movie became a classic and has topped many critics’ polls as the best movie of all time.
Going back in time, one of the first and best newspaper dramas was the 1931 Five Star Final, directed by Mervyn LeRoy. It stars Edward G. Robinson as a hardboiled tabloid editor who dredges up a 20-year-old murder case and gets more trouble than he bargained for.
Another film in the hard-boiled tradition is Richard Brooks’ Deadline USA
(1952), which stars an extremely convincing Humphrey Bogart as a crusading editor writing an expose of a gangland crime just as his newspaper is about to be sold.
Billy Wilder’s 1951 Ace in the Hole
stars Kirk Douglas in a story of a down-and-out reporter who delays the rescue of a man trapped in a cave to jump-start his career, a movie infused with wit and cynicism.
There haven’t been enough tough women reporters on screen, but Sally Field plays one in Sydney Pollack’s Absence of Malice
(1981). Field investigates when warehouse owner Paul Newman is accused of being involved with the murder of a union head.
I’m not a huge fan of the 1994 The Paper
, directed by Ron Howard, because too much of it seems contrived, but it features great performances by Robert Duvall as a tough publisher and Michael Keaton as a stressed-out city editor.
Relatively recent movies that feature a newspaper setting include Kevin Macdonald’s State of Play
(2009), a star-studded reworking of a British television series, about reporters looking into the death of a congressional aide, starring Helen Mirren, Russell Crowe and Ben Affleck, and Zodiac
(2007), David Fincher’s look at newspaper staffers (Jake Gyllenhaal and Robert Downey Jr.) and detectives on the trail of the Zodiac killer in San Francisco in the 1970s.
Not all newspaper movies are high drama. Howard Hawks’ His Girl Friday, a reworking of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s play The Front Page
, about a star reporter trying to quit the business and the editor who will do anything to stop him from leaving, is a one of the greatest romantic comedies of all time, as well as one of the wittiest, most cynical and most sophisticated.
The twist in His Girl Friday (1940) is that the reporter, Hildy Johnson, is a woman, portrayed with maximum gutsiness by Rosalind Russell, while her unscrupulous boss and ex-husband, Walter Burns, is played by Cary Grant.
The Front Page, with two male leads – a bromance rather that a romance – was filmed twice, in 1931 with Adolphe Menjou and Pat O’Brien, and in 1974 in a Billy Wilder version starring Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau.
Other newspaper comedies include Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night
, about a spoiled runaway heiress (Claudette Colbert) and the reporter (Clark Gable) who helps her out hoping to get her story. William Wyler’s similarly themed Roman Holiday starred Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, with a princess instead of an heiress and a European setting rather than an American one.
Another comic take on the news biz is the little-known Between the Lines
(1977), directed by Joan Micklin Silver (Hester Street
), about an underground paper in Boston about to be taken over by a corporation, which stars Jeff Goldblum. Another newspaper comedy worth watching is the 1958 Teacher’s Pet,
where veteran metro reporter (Clark Gable again) pretends to be a journalism student in order to win over a blonde journalism professor (Doris Day).
If the phrase, “Sweetheart, get me rewrite!” still makes you think of breaking news and a breakneck pace rather than a sexual harassment complaint, you’ll want to see The Post
and revisit some of these older classics.