Journalism in the Movies

I’ve been thinking about journalism lately.  Not the kind of super soft, barely there pseudo-journalism I do for my blog or the kind you find in the “listicles” ubiquitous on Twitter and Facebook, but the kind of real journalism that we go to newspapers and other credible news outlets for.  To be a little more specific I’ve been thinking about how journalists and journalism have been represented in the media over the years, particularly in feature films and I started to wonder if there were any lists of movies about journalism floating around.

So, I started to look for a good list of movies about Journalism to help me understand this evolution.  Honestly, there are a lot of them.  They tend to have names like “100 movies every journalist must watch” or “Top Ten movies about journalism.”  The interesting thing I noticed is that while some of the lists I found stuck to the basics, others took a much broader approach and at times applied the term “journalist,” very loosely within the narrative.   This made it difficult to find what I was looking for.  While I did find a few really good lists, for the most part I thought they were either way too long, way too short or totally lacked focus.  So, I decided to try and put together a list of my own.

The problem is there are 100’s of movies about journalism out there so like every other viewing list I’ve made, I had to set down a few rules for myself.  First, I decided to omit documentary films altogether.  Documentaries are a form of journalism all their own and I think they really deserve their own list, or at least a list that allows them to speak for themselves in their own category.  I further culled my list by limiting myself to movies I have seen, movies I enjoyed watching and would definitely watch again, and movies which have a journalist, or journalism, as a central plot point or character within the storyline.  Ideally they would also be based on journalism of some sort, but being that i’m specifically interested in narrative fiction in cinema that’s not always the case.

As it turns out I’d seen more movies about journalism than I thought, so it took me a considerable amount of time and much deliberation, before I was able to whittle down my list and decide which movies were the ones I wanted to include on it.  In the end it came down to me asking myself two questions: Which movies made a lasting impression? and Which movies do I think say something interesting about journalism, or the journalists of the time?  I realize this cuts a wide swath and is short in comparison to what is out there, but in my opinion there is no point in making a list of your favourite movies if you plan on including absolutely everything.

I’m not a film historian or writing a thesis, without doubt there are probably some movies I’ve included that others would not, and vice versa, that’s to be expected.  I’m just a person who is pretty passionate about cinema and clearly spent way too much time thinking about this.  While I think this is a good list I also think you probably don’t want to power straight through it, because some of the movies are going to bring you down.  Still, this has been an interesting exercise and given me a lot to think about with respect to how we view journalism, journalists and their role in society.

I’ve decided to keep this list chronological and for the most part foregone including a short synopsis of each film in favour of providing links so you can find more information about each film if you want it and come to your own conclusions.

1. It Happened One Night (1934) Frank Capra

2. His Girl Friday (1940) Howard Hawks.  (Full Movie)

3. Citizen Kane (1941) Orson Welles

4. Ace in the Hole (1951) Billy Wilder (a.k.a The Big Carnival)

5. La Dolce Vita (1960)  Federico Fellini

6. The Cat-O-Nine Tails (1971) Dario Argento “il Gato a Nove Code

7. The Passenger (1975) Michelangeo Antonini “Professione: reporter

8. The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum (1975) Volker Schlöndorff and Margarethe von TrottaDie verlorene Ehre der Katharina Blum

9.  The Parallax View, (1974) Alan J. Pakula:

10.  All the President’s Men (1976) Alan J. Pakula:

11.  The China Syndrome (1979) James Bridges:

12. Absence of Malice (1981) Sydney Pollack

13. Missing (1982) Costa-Gavras

14. The Killing Fields (1984) Roland Joffé

15. Salvador (1986) Oliver Stone

16. Cry Freedom (1987) Richard Attenborough

17. The Quiet American (2000) Phillip Noyce – (*Equally outstanding and and one of the few book to movie adaptations I like enough to recommend, The Quiet American by Graham Greene is not to be missed.)

18. Shattered Glass (2003) Billy Ray

19. Good Night and Good Luck (2005) George Clooney

20.  Spotlight (2015) Tom McCarthy

21.  The Leopard ( 1963 )  Luchino Visconti – Based on the novel by Guiseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa

I really don’t like recommending anything I haven’t seen.  But, I am going to make two exceptions because these are both movies I have had on my radar for some time now and I have a really good feeling about both of them.

20. Philomena (2013) Stephen Frears:  About a woman who goes on a  journey with a journalist to search for the child she gave up for adoption.  This movie has been recommended to me so many times that it’s not for lack of trying that I haven’t watched it, it’s just been due to a lack of time.

21. État de Siége (1972) Costa-Gavras  (State of Siege) Having seen and really liked both “Z” and “Missing” I think I can safely assume that I will also like État de Siége.  However, getting hold of it has been a lot more difficult than I thought, even more difficult than it was to find “Missing“.

When we start talking about television, we are changing the game a little bit. Although many of the same rules apply it’s hard not to consider a story that can evolve over a much longer period of time an entirely different animal, particularly because the role of journalism although often very prominent can take a much longer time to evolve.  So, I was hesitant to initially include any television, or programming created by a media production company on this list. Ultimately I think that changes in the television production model make it uniquely capable of reflecting the changing attitudes and roles that media has within our society and I decided to (start) adding programs to my list.

22.  The Wire, Season 5 (2008) This show stood out among so many and was so consistently excellent, I would be remiss and probably an idiot if I didn’t mention it here.

23.  House of Cards, Season 1 (2013)  Although in my humble opinion the modern iteration will always pale in comparison to its predecessor,  I might have been initially drawn to the program due to the novelty of it being one of the first major non-network, and non-cable, streaming media sensations produced by Netflix, a company that originally specialized in mail order movies, but in the end the show was strong in its own right.

24. The Thick of It.  Particularly, Season 4 Predating “Veep” and written by Armando Iannucci there is probably not enough I can say about this show other than you should watch it.

One of the reasons why I like narrative fiction so much is the unique way it is able to interpret facts and engage the audience.   Movies, particularly feature films which interpret facts through the lens of narrative fiction, have an amazing way of reflecting the hopes, fears and ever changing cultural norms of a society.  It has been very interesting for me to try and make a small selection of movies, about journalism, that I like and would recommend to someone looking to understand larger trends and how attitudes reflected through popular media change over time .  I will admit I am a little disappointed in myself for not having seen more movies from outside of the United States but, whatever… I feel like this is a pretty solid start.

While I am left with many new ideas and questions about movies, media and journalists, I am curious to see see how their portrayals will continue to evolve over the next few decades, particularly as we see bloggers and social media become a even more important part of the media landscape and as media production and distribution falls into the hands of media conglomerates.   Although there are many discussions that could be had, and many more movies to be viewed, my last lingering thought about this list is actually not about movies at all, but how incredibly awesome this would have been to take as a class.