The recently-released Spotlight tells the true story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into allegations of sexual abuse within the Boston Catholic Church. Following a small group of journalists as they slowly unravel a massive cover-up in spite of the church’s efforts to stop them, Spotlight is a near-flawless entry into the niche of the American Journalism Film, a kind of sub-genre of sorts that rarely fails to turn out critically acclaimed award-winners. Spotlight is, like the genre’s best, noble without going overboard, just sentimental enough and intently concerned with championing the integrity—the importance—of the job above most everything else.
There’s just something about the profession of journalism that makes for “quality” American drama: Little guy goes up against the man; hero has to choose between what’s true and what sells; intrepid reporter risks life and limb by embedding in a warzone or simply bucking the wishes of the powers that be. A journalist, whether in the newsroom or in the field, is constantly questioning, conducting interviews, or fighting with editors—it’s all very cinematic. And oh, the delightful tropes journalism in film has brought us! Where would we be without montages of long nights of research or spinning newspapers or some street urchin yelling, “Extra! Extra!”?
So with Spotlight starting the conversation, it seems an appropriate time to look back at the (fictional) films that best exemplify the occupation of journalism—no matter the journalist’s medium. With a mix of the heroic and the satirical, the serious and the light-hearted, here are 15 of film’s greatest odes to humanity’s second oldest profession.
Director: Sydney Lumet
One of the best-known journalism films of the past 50 years, Network is a vicious satire of the world of television, where ratings and advertising dollars are everything, and any shred of truth must be punched up and manipulated. It’s a film of quotable dialogue (“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore”) and memorable characters, from Peter Finch’s unraveling Howard Beale, the “mad prophet of the airwaves,” to Faye Dunaway’s ambitious, soulless executive Diana Christensen. To viewers today, the film’s satire may seem to have all the subtlety of a sledgehammer, but it’s still a brutally funny excoriation of a medium that has only become more desperate for profit in the ensuing decades. Plus it was pretty much the first of its kind, paving the way for plenty of nimble variations on its theme, like Spike Lee’s Bamboozled.
Director: Cameron Crowe
Say what you will about what Cameron Crowe’s done since, but Almost Famous holds up as a stellar examination (and celebration) of music fandom—not to mention it’s one of the only films about music journalism. It’s got, in arguably his most recognizable role, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lester Bangs, acting as William’s and the audience’s guide to that slippery, intoxicating world of major league writing. (“You cannot make friends with the rock stars.”) Ultimately a coming-of-age story about a kid walking the line between journalism and fandom, it still resonates for those of us who have, the older we get, become more and more disillusioned by our heroes, but unable to give up on the art they make.
Director: Bennett Miller
Like the rest of Bennett Miller’s short filmography, Capote is a character study above all else—not a biopic, exactly, but a close reading of one particularly hard-to-read man on the cusp of greatness. And yet, no movie about the writing of In Cold Blood (a book that introduced the concept of the “non-fiction novel” and the true crime genre as we know it) can ignore the squeamish topic of the relationships journalists must forge with their subjects. Miller’s film is an unflinching look at the paradox of a writer like Capote: In order to pen one of the twentieth century’s most compassionate books, he needed to engage in some manipulative, strangely cold behavior. For anyone who hasn’t read In Cold Blood, watching Capote will be a possibly dissatisfying experience, but as a companion to the book it works as an engaging deconstruction of a writer’s process. And it helps that, in Philip Seymour Hoffman’s second appearance on this list, Capote features one of the most transformative performances his incredible career.
Director: Richard Brooks
Without a doubt, Deadline USA falls into the camp of journalism films that see no lack of idealism whatsoever in the profession, with Humphrey Bogart starring as a virtuous newspaper editor who believes in exposing corruption, even if it might lose him his job. It’s the story of New York’s The Day (based on the New York Sun, which folded in 1950), a paper in the process of being sold to interests who plan to cease publication, just when Bogart and his reporters are about to break a big story. Deadline USA has an air of realism about it not always found in other “newsroom” films (the printing press scenes were shot on location in the New York Daily News building), and Bogart turns in a characteristically grounded performance, toning down the sense of inflated nobility at times apparent in the script. A subplot about the potential for a reunion with his estranged ex-wife (Kim Hunter) feels equally underplayed; the struggle of the paper, and of the people who depend on it, is the film’s timeless focus.
Director: Howard Hawks
Of the three direct adaptations of Ben Hecht and Charles Macarthur’s 1928 play The Front Page, His Girl Friday is the most successful. In a bold move for the times, Hawkes chose to change the lead role of reporter Hildy Johnson to a woman, and cast Rosalind Russell opposite Cary Grant. Though it’s often heralded as one of America’s great, early screwball comedies, His Girl Friday also works as a feminist film before its time, with Hildy forced to choose between the sedate life of a housewife and the exciting world of the newsroom. The madcap antics of the plot are secondary to the witty rapid-fire repartee between Russell and Grant, which include such classic insults as “You double-crossing chimpanzee” and “You’ve got the brain of a pancake.”
Director: Ron Howard
A small-scale film with a large purview, Frost/Nixon strategically captures the interview as journalistic art, as we watch David Frost (Michael Sheen) attempt to destabilize the most difficult of subjects, Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon (Frank Langella, in a captivating performance). The film doesn’t much dig into David Frost personally, other than to indicate that he’s an entertainer above all, used to coasting on his natural charisma and not quite prepared for the potentially career-ruining interview he’s signed himself up for. There are some fun, awkward scenes with Frost and his research team (featuring the always-enjoyable Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt), meeting and greeting the former president, too. But most of Frost/Nixon’s running time is dedicated to what Nixon dubs a “duel,” and it is exhilarating to watch Frost, initially pummeled by the pro opposite him, come back to life in the final round.
Director: Billy Wilder
Ace in the Hole stands out as one of the most cynical films on this list, and certainly the most scathing in its critique of journalism as a profession for the opportunistic and unethical. In it, Kirk Douglas is magnetic as the hugely unlikable Chuck Tatum, a journalist whose wild streak has gotten him demoted from the New York big leagues to Albuquerque, NM. He feels his luck turn around when he catches wind of a trapped miner and engineers a story that captures the interest of thousands. Which is when Wilder doesn’t pull any punches, plunging his film into a frightening, cold place where no one is on the side of good, and everyone is just looking out for number one. Ace in the Hole may be set in the broad, tumbleweed-dotted landscapes of New Mexico, but it’s a gritty film noir through and through, the kind that leaves a chill in the air once the final titles roll. Even when Tatum’s lies come crashing down around him, there’s little comfort in knowing that truth has, apparently, won.
Director: Dan Gilroy
Like Ace in the Hole, Nightcrawler explores the ambiguous ethics of the world of local news through a totally unsympathetic central character. Jake Gyllenhaal’s freelance cameraman Louis Bloom is more than an ambitious megalomaniac—he may just be a complete lunatic. The beauty of Nightcrawler lies in its creeping sense of voyeurism, the feeling that Bloom—and, by extension, the audience—is seeing things he shouldn’t be seeing. Gilroy’s script brilliantly sketches Bloom as an empty man obsessed with a certain kind of motivational corporate speak that promotes upward mobility at any cost. Rene Russo is the film’s version of Faye Dunaway in Network, profit-obsessed and doing what it takes to climb the ladder, which means giving her destructive new protégé the freedom he needs to manipulate the news in his favor. Nightcrawler takes the old saw “If it bleeds, it leads” to ghoulish new lows, and Gyllenhaal’s chilling performance captures a specifically 21st century kind of monster.
Director: James Brooks
Broadcast News, against the backdrop of television news, lets play out that age-old cinematic gold mine: the love triangle. But rather than remain just a backdrop, the profession of journalism is the key to our three main characters’ identities: Jane (Holly Hunter) is an extremely driven producer, known for being cool under pressure and unwaveringly excellent at her job; Aaron (Albert Brooks as uber-mensch) is her steadfast partner at work, an intrepid reporter whose dynamism in the field remains overlooked; and then there’s Tom (William Hurt), the new pretty boy anchor way more clever than he seems. Aaron and Tom’s battle for career recognition, as well as Jane’s affection, mirrors the constant balance television journalists must strike between entertainment and hard news. And in typical Brooks fashion, there is no easy resolution to that balance.
Director: Billy Ray
On paper (pun intended?), Shattered Glass doesn’t sound like a particularly exciting film: New Republic wunderkind Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiansen) fabricates much of his work for the magazine, winning praise from colleagues until he’s finally exposed. Still, somehow, Billy Ray’s film makes for incredibly compelling viewing—partly due to two strong central performances: Christiansen, perfectly cast our main sociopath, telegraphs a sense of desperation from the first moment he’s onscreen, and Peter Sarsgaard, silently simmers with frustration as Chuck Lane, the newly hired editor of the magazine and the only one who suspects that something is up. The film treats its subject with the utmost seriousness—this is nothing less than one journalist’s utter betrayal of his profession and his colleagues. Tension slowly escalates as Lane investigates Glass’s story about a teenage hacker and a suspicious-sounding software company (memorably named “Jukt Micronics”), and when Sarsgaard spits at the film’s climax, “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed it all as fact…just because we found him ‘entertaining,’” Shattered Glass becomes a true horror story for editors everywhere.
Director: Warren Beatty
It’s hard to place a film of such epic scale as Reds in any particular category other than biopic, but John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryant (a never-better Diane Keaton), the subjects of the film, are identified as journalists first and foremost—as a real-life former associate mentions in one of the documentary-style interviews sprinkled throughout the film, “He [Reed] was definitely a stirrer-up of people.” Following Reed and Bryant from their early careers as left-wing journalists through their coverage of the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, about which Reed published his only book, Ten Days that Shook the World, Reds is a sweeping historical drama, love story and look at the complicated lives of early twentieth-century rebels. It also demonstrates the power of the press as a voice of dissent in a time of great upheaval.
Director: Michael Mann
The Insider, based on the true story of a tobacco industry whistleblower and the 60 Minutes segment that broke his story, is clearly about more than just journalism—but it’s journalism, both its political inner-workings and its larger potential as a challenge to power, as a savior and a conduit for change, that forms the heart of the story. Al Pacino stars as investigative journalist Lowell Bergman, effortlessly projecting his trademark lived-in, weary tenacity, supported by a barely-recognizable Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer (portraying Mike Wallace with eerie accuracy). It’s a sprawling, 160-minute film that continues raising the stakes, from illicit meetings to death threats to that most stymieing obstacle of them all: corporate squirreliness. Mann’s penchant for flashy visuals (Pacino on a remote beach at dusk, screaming into his cell phone as waves churn beside him) is tempered just enough to keep the film grounded, and corporate games of chicken have never felt so thrilling.
Director: David Fincher
Another nearly three-hour opus, Zodiac tells a story, spanning over a decade, so deliberately and methodically the audience can’t help but feel the weight of every single minute. Only a storied perfectionist like David Fincher could’ve pulled off such an obsessive film about obsession, such an absorbing film about a black hole of a case that never comes to a satisfying resolution. In his second appearance on this list, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Robert Graysmith, a cartoonist at the San Francisco Chronicle who, despite never having worked as a journalist himself, becomes so engrossed in finding the Zodiac killer that he dedicates his life to it, losing his job and breaking up his marriage in the process. The great actors in Zodiac are legion, though (pre-comeback) Robert Downey, Jr. stands out as Paul Avery, the troubled crime reporter who works with Graysmith on the case until meeting his own tragic end. Though the case of the Zodiac killer remains frustratingly unsolved, Zodiac, as a meditation on this frustration, is mesmerizing.
Director: Orson Welles
Obviously, Citizen Kane is no stranger to lists like these; I even considered leaving it off in favor of a less-blurbed-about selection. But there’s no denying that part of what makes this film ostensibly the “greatest of all time” is the way it uses the process of journalism to create a style and structure of storytelling that felt totally unique at the time of its release. We experience much of the film through the eyes of a reporter (the great Joseph Cotten) attempting to understand the life and death of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane: In a sense, it is film-as-investigative journalism, which enables Welles to take an innovative approach, dissecting Kane’s life in flashbacks, newsreels, and interviews from not-always reliable sources. In fact, it would be impossible to keep Kane off this list if only for its visually stunning newspaper montage—just one example of the film’s spectacular editing, which even today seems ahead of its time.
Director: Alan J. Pakula
When watching any contemporary film about journalism, one can more often than not sense the influence of All the President’s Men, the film based on Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s bombshell 1974 book on the Watergate break-in. It’s journalism at its most compellingly watchable, with sequences that have since become entrenched in our cinematic language: Woodward meeting Deep Throat (played with terse dignity by Hal Holbrook) in a barely-lit parking garage, cigarette smoke curling around them as they whisper; Woodward blasting a Rachmaninoff concerto in Bernstein’s apartment, typing out the words “SURVEILLANCE” and “BUGGING”; and the film’s scathing final sequence, in which we watch Nixon’s inauguration via a newsroom television, then cut to a teletype, which pitilessly delivers the news of each subsequent trial, conviction and resignation. Pakula, whose early career thrived on films about paranoia and conspiracy, directs with a light, precise hand, allowing the script (aided by Hoffman and Redford’s performances), with its mounting series of tense encounters, small victories and larger setbacks, to carry itself. What results is an unsentimental, yet wholly engrossing, glimpse into what was a very cynical time in American history, but an optimistic one for investigative journalism.