SPOTLIGHT: REPORTERS ON THE SCREEN

Updated November 18, 2018

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With the country’s news media going through one of the worst crises in its history, be it in the form of censorship or massive lay-offs and pay cuts, it is a good moment to help lift the spirits of fellow journalists who’ve been handed the short-end of the stick.

“It is important to keep fighting” is how a senior journalist responded a few months ago when I knocked on her door complaining of the present state of affairs.

So in a bid to help dejected colleagues weather this storm, here’s a list of my all time favourite 11 films based on journalism.

In times such as these, news media professionals need all the help they can get. Icon provides some stress relief with a list of movies based on… what else but... journalism

1. All the President’s Men (1976)

Of course this 1976 classic is number one, not only because the over-two-hour intense drama shows how budding journalists of The Washington Post took on President Nixon’s mighty White House in the Watergate scandal, but because it reflects something we all believe but rarely see — pure journalism. The film is based on Bob Woodward’s best-selling book of the same name.

Favourite line:

The associate editor, trying to pitch Woodward and Bernstein’s story to editor Ben Bradlee, says, “They’re hungry, you remember what it was like to be hungry.”

2. The Insider (1999)

This explosive drama featuring Al Pacino in one of his best roles is the story of a whistle-blower from the tobacco industry, who is left out to dry when corporate considerations trump journalistic values at CBS’ primetime show 60 Minutes. However, in the end, Pacino, who plays the show’s producer, manages to get the show on air in its entirety thanks to back-room maneuvering and the help of fellow journalists.

Favourite lines:

When an interview of 60 Minutes’ host Mike Wallace, played by the towering Christopher Plummer, is edited to favour a CBS corporate’s view, he unleashes at the organisation’s counsel and management, saying, “You corporate lackey! Who told you your incompetent little fingers had the requisite skills to edit me … I’ve been in this profession 50 f****** years. You, and the people you work for, are destroying the most-respected, the highest-rated, the most profitable show on this network!”

Another gut-wrenching scene is when Lowell Bergman, played by Pacino, lashes out at his bosses, saying, “… Jeffrey Wigand [the whistleblower], who’s out on a limb, does he go on television and tell the truth? Yes. Is it newsworthy? Yes. Are we gonna air it? Of course not. Why? Because he’s not telling the truth? No. Because he is telling the truth. That’s why we’re not going to air it. And the more truth he tells, the worse it gets!”

3. Spotlight (2015)

This true story shows how the Boston Globe uncovered a massive child abuse scandal and its cover-up by priests and cardinals, shaking the entire Catholic church to its core. The film aptly covers how important it is for reporters to be persistent and how a journalist should take a stand even if it pitches you against friends and the society you’re a part of.

The work of the Spotlight team won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003.

Favourite lines:

When Marty Baron, the new Jewish editor of the paper from New York visits Cardinal Law, who is an influential and respected figure of the town, he’s told “… if I can be of any help, don’t hesitate to ask. I find that this city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” Marty retorts, “Uh, thank you. Personally I’m of the opinion that for the paper to best perform its function, it needs to, uh, stand alone.”

In another scene, when Mike Rezendes, who is the lead reporter on the story and most passionate about the subject, asks a judge to release ‘sensitive’ public records, he’s asked, “… but tell me, where is the editorial responsibility in publishing records of this nature?” His response: “Where’s the editorial responsibility in not publishing them?”

4. Shock and Awe (2017)

A group of journalists covering US President George Bush’s planned invasion of Iraq in 2003 are skeptical of the president’s claim that Saddam Hussein has “weapons of mass destruction.” As a result, Knight Ridder (news service) and its team are the only ones questioning the administration’s ‘evidence’ for WMDs in Iraq.

The film also critiques the blatant one-sided coverage of the New YorkTimes and other media outlets for beating the war drums instead of doing their job — for which the Times later apologised.

Favourite lines:

“When news is an access centre, profit becomes currency,” Knight Ridder Washington D.C. Bureau Chief John Walcott says at one point.

After hearing an interview of US Vice President Dick Cheney making a case for the war, Walcott says out loud in the newsroom, “If every other news organisation wants to be stenographers for the Bush administration, let them. We don’t write for people who send others people’s kids to war, we write for people whose kids get sent to war. So when the government says something, you only have one question to ask — is it true?”

5. Frost and Nixon (2008)

Directed by Ron Howard, the film, based on a book and play, covers the series of interviews of former US President Richard Nixon by TV host David Frost. The interviews resulted in Nixon’s mea culpa moment with regards to the Watergate scandal.

Favourite line:

James Reston, a historian who helped Frost prepare for the interviews and on whose book the film is based, says at one point: “You know the first and greatest sin of the deception of television is that it simplifies; it diminishes great, complex ideas, stretches of time; whole careers become reduced to a single snapshot … because David had succeeded … in getting for a fleeting moment what no investigative journalist, no state prosecutor, no judiciary committee or political enemy had managed to get: Richard Nixon’s face swollen and ravaged by loneliness, self-loathing and defeat.”

6. Shattered Glass (2003)

Based on the true story of Stephen Glass who, as a budding reporter at The New Republic magazine, made up scores of fictional stories, duping his editor and colleagues. The film shows how journalists are prone to make up stories for various reasons, including gaining popularity among peers, and how editors must safeguard against it.

Favourite line:

The magazine’s editor Chuck Lane, played by Peter Sarsgaard, tells a colleague, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed them all as fact. Just because ... we found him ‘entertaining’. It’s indefensible.”

7. State of Play (2009)

Released after the notorious ‘Blackwater’ military contractors made headlines the world over, the film uncovers a murder conspiracy which unravels a nexus of corrupt US politicians and the country’s top private military contractor. The film also deals with the complicated scenario of a journalist knowing the subject of his or her story.

Favourite line:

When Representative Stephen Collins, played by Ben Affleck, says “Am I talking to my friend now or am I talking to a reporter?” The reporter and his long-time buddy, Cal McAffrey, played by Russel Crowe, replies, “I gotta be both.”

***8. *The Paper (1994)****

In this classic from the ’90s, Michael Keaton plays the (New York) city editor of a tabloid while Robert Duvall and Glenn Close are senior editors. Keaton is running against time as the tabloid is bent on wrongfully accusing two African-Americans of murder and he has to find proof against it before the print deadline.

Favourite lines:

The managing editor, played by Close, says, “We taint ’em today and make them look good on Saturday so everybody’s happy.”

Keaton, knowing the importance of this most revered journalism exclamation, shouts, “Stop the presses!” in a bid to keep the paper from printing the wrong story.

In another scene, Keaton, dejected by the paper’s plan to print a story he knows is wrong and will ruin innocent lives, stresses on the importance of getting the story right, saying that regardless of the kind of stories the tabloid covered earlier, “At least it’s the truth.”

9. Goodnight And Good Luck (2005)

The intense drama covers how CBS News broadcaster Edward R. Murrow, in the 1950s, battled the McCarthy-inspired ‘anti-communist’ hysteria gripping the US on his weekly show — See It Now.

Favourite line:

“…We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty. We must remember always, that accusation is not proof, and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law..,” — David Russell Strathairn, who gives a captivating performance as Murrow, in one of his monologues on TV.

10. Live From Baghdad (2002)

Set in the backdrop of the 1991 Iraq war, the HBO film covers the birth of the ‘24/7 news coverage’ age. As a CNN producer reaches Baghdad with his team before the start of the US bombing, he develops a rapport with the information minister which gives him access to special broadcast equipment. The film aptly covers the intricacies of dealing with state apparatuses to get news out, the compromises involved and the motto that the ‘end justifies the means’.

In the end, the film, based on a book of the same name by Robert Weiner, the real-life CNN producer, shows how taking risks and following your gut are some of the most important tools at a journalist’s disposal.

Favourite line:

“We’re a 24-hour news network looking for a 24-hour story, and one just fell from the sky” — when Wiener asks his bosses in Atlanta to send him to Iraq.

11. The Hunting Party (2007)

A TV reporter and cameraman go on a quest to find the most-wanted man inBosnia — and with it the biggest story of their lives. When the film was released, the story of a war-criminal hiding in plain sight resonated with rumours in Pakistan about the presence of high-profile TTP militants in Swat, Fata and the state, allegedly, deliberately looking the other way.

Favourite line:

While explaining a journalist’s job description, Simon, played by Richard Gere, says “... putting your life in danger is actual living — the rest is television.”

Published in Dawn, ICON, November 18th, 2018