The Fourth Estate on film: Six great newspaper movies

Maybe I’m a little biased, but for my money there are few greater cinematic thrills than a well-made newspaper movie.

Consider the thematic trappings alone: the thrill of an ever-approaching, inflexible Deadline (always, the capital D is implied); the shrieking, desk-pounding editor demanding clean copy and quick results; the hustle and bustle of the newsroom — phones ringing, thunderous typing, clocks ticking; the looming imperious obstacles to truth, shadowy doers of underhanded deeds profiting from sinister conspiratorial machinations; and, of course, the dogged, unflappable reporter chasing down The Story (again, implied capitals bestow sanctity on the subject) no matter what.

It worked back in the day, and it works now, regardless of the shifting perception about and responsibilities of journalists in society. As proof, witness the highly heralded recent release of Steven Spielberg’s star-studded love letter to the press: “The Post” (now showing in theaters across Kitsap).

But, wait. Stop the presses!

This just in: Newspapers have long been chief among the many irresistible incarnations of the Fourth Estate for purveyors of silver screen goodies. Here is a list of six other great newspaper movies (in no particular order) well worth your time.

Read free or die.

1. “Spotlight” (2015)

Everything you heard about this Tom McCarthy-helmed masterpiece is correct. See it, if you have not. It’s just that good.

Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber and Billy Crudup, the film follows the Boston Globe’s so-called “Spotlight Team,” the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalism unit in the United OVERSET FOLLOWS:States, and its investigation into cases of widespread, systemic child sex abuse in Boston by many Catholic priests — and the subsequent cover-up effort.

It’s based on a series of stories by the real life Spotlight Team that earned the Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.

My favorite part of this flick is the lack of flash. The reporters are stressed out, overworked real people with real lives outside the newsroom just doing a job — a job they very much believe in, but a job nonetheless. The news is a grind sometimes, and this movie isn’t afraid to show that.

2. “The Paper” (2004)

Proving he’s at least as qualified to work at a newspaper as he is to be a masked superhero (he’s done bot at least twice now), before snagging headlines of his own for his performance in “Spotlight,” Michael Keaton starred in this 1994 Ron Howard-helmed, press-worthy picture.

The movie (one of the few totally fictional installments on this list) depicts an especially hectic 24 hours for Keaton’s New York newspaper editor, both professionally and personally. The main story of the day is the murder of a couple of visiting white businessmen supposedly committed by two young black men. Public tension rises faster than Keaton’s caffeine junky heart rate.

He, along with a hard-drinking Gonzo columnist (Randy Quaid) and a slew of diligent reporters, discover evidence suggesting a police cover up of evidence proving the suspects’ innocence, and they rush to the scoop, all while battling cutbacks coming down from on high, cut-throat competition and, of course, The Deadline.

3. “All the President’s Men” (1976)

No such list would be complete without this one, obviously.

Directed by Alan J. Pakula, with a screenplay by William Goldman based on the 1974 nonfiction book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the two actual journalists who investigated the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, the film stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, respectively, as they “follow the money” and score the biggest win yet in the history of the American press, simultaneously setting the standard by which all newspaper movies to come would be measured.

The movie was also nominated in multiple Oscar, Golden Globe and BAFTA categories, and, in 2010, was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress.

3. “Zodiac” (2007)

This David Fincher film is based on the 1986 nonfiction book of the same name by San Francisco Chronicle cartoonist Robert Graysmith (played here by Jake Gyllenhaal), who became obsessed with learning the true identity of the serial killer known as The Zodiac after the paper began receiving letters from someone claiming to be him.

Working with veteran crime reporter Paul Avery (a wonderfully boozy and cynical performance by Robert Downey Jr.) and hounding the police incessantly while also conducting his own reserch, Graysmith delves deeper and deeper into the numerous suspects in this, one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in American history.

Fun fact: In this film, Mark Ruffalo plays real life San Francisco police detective Dave Toschi (whose iconic style of quick-draw shoulder-holster was later copied by Steve McQueen in “Bullitt”) and who would himself eventually work the other side of a complex criminal case, as a reporter this time, in “Spotlight.”

4. “State of Play” (2009)

When a congressional aide is killed, a grizzled veteran Washington D.C. journalist (Russell Crowe) starts investigating the case, which grows to involve the woman’s boss, a congressman who is actually his old college friend (Ben Affleck), and his wife (Robin Wright, shades of “House of Cards” here), the woman they both love.

As a sign of the times, all the while he’s being forced to work with a much younger, tech-savvy “new media” reporter (Rachel McAdams), who, to his continued consternation, more than holds her own.

The conspiracy eventually delves into some deeply serious waters — a Blackwater-type mercenary group and problematic political goings-on — but the truth might actually be revealed thanks to the seemingly random death of a pizza delivery guy.

Coincides abound — or is it something more?

Crowe is everything a Hollywood version of a reporter should be: a grouchy slob, seemingly lazy and unobservant, but secretly the smartest guy in the room. Watch for especially good turns in this one by Helen Mirren as the weary, conflicted editor, Jason Bateman as a super sleazy, cowardly PR guy in over his head, and Jeff Daniels as a just-way-too-smooth politician.

4. “Ace in the Hole” (1951)

Billy Wilder followed up his undisputed masterpiece “Sunset Boulevard” with this mean, dirty noir flick about a psychopathically ambitious reporter taking advantage of a disaster.

America hated it.

Critics of the day dismissed Wilder’s “cynical” and “cold” story, in which Kirk Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a fiercely driven and self-centered, wisecracking, alcoholic, down-on-his-luck reporter who has worked his way down the professional ladder from former big city papers to unemployment. Arriving at last in New Mexico with nothing, he takes a job at a small local paper, hoping to find a story big enough to write his way back into high society.

At last, his chance arrives. Wile reluctantly en route to cover a rattlesnake hunt, he learns about a local man who has become trapped in a cave collapse while gathering artifacts. Tatum takes charge and begins to manipulate the rescue effort. He convinces the man’s bored, greedy wife to let him be the family’s official representative and gets the bully of a sheriff to force the mining crews to drill down to the man from above rather than shoring up the collapsed passage, which will take much longer. This allows Tatum to go on monopolizing the story and putting his byline on the front pages of newspapers around the country.

The site of the cave in becomes a tourist attraction, drawing thousands of people to a formerly dead town. Businesses thrive. Tatum’s a star again. Everyone’s getting what they want — except the poor guy down in the cave who’s dying, of course.

Originally titled “The Big Carnival,” it was just not the view of itself that early 1950s ‘Merica was willing to consider, and it would take a few years before people began to see “Ace in the Hole” for the pragmatic, prescient view of everything that is bad about the news media that it is.

5. “His Girl Friday” (1940)

Howard Hawks flipped the gender of one of the main characters of the popular play “The Front Page” and created one of the finest American comedies of all time.

Walter Burns (played by Cary Grant) is an unscrupulous scoundrel of an editor overseeing The Morning Post, who suddenly learns his ex-wife and former star reporter, Hildegard “Hildy” Johnson (the incomparable Rosalind Russell), is about to marry a boring insurance salesman and settle down to a quiet life as a wife and mommy. Appalled, and finding himself still very much in love with her — and desperate to keep his best reporter on staff — Burns decides to sabotage her escape plan by proving to Hildy that no other life will satisfy her.

For a big, much-needed payday, he entices the reluctant Hildy to cover one last story: the impending execution of a convicted murderer, hoping to change her mind.

Hilarious dialogue (it’s reportedly one of Quentin Tarantino’s favorite films, if you need proof), madcap hijinks and spot-on performances by Grant and Russel make this a must-see movie. It was #19 on the American Film Institute’s “100 Years…100 Laughs” list, and has been selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry too.

6. “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962)

This John Ford film stands alongside his other undisputed masterpiece “The Searchers,” jostling cinematic shoulders for the right to be the generally agreed upon greatest classic Western ever made.

Boasting an all star cast including John Wayne, Jimmy Stewart, Vera Miles, Lee Marvin, Edmond O’Brien and Andy Devine, the film’s focus is nothing short of the very nature of truth — in the stories we tell others, the ones we tell ourselves, and why.

In it, an beloved aging senator (Stewart), who became famous for killing a notorious outlaw (Marvin) years ago, returns to the town in which he became a legend for the funeral of an old friend (Wayne), a poor rancher who nobody in town even remembers, and tells the local press the truth about his iconic accomplishment and the man he came to bury.

The New York Times called it, “…one of the great Western classics,” because, “it questions the role of myth in forging the legends of the West, while setting this theme in the elegiac atmosphere of the West itself, set off by the aging Stewart and Wayne.”

The New Yorker’s Richard Brody described it as, “the greatest American political movie”, because of its depictions of a free press, town meetings, statehood debates, and the “civilizing influence” of education in frontier America.

O’Brien’s performance as the blustery, ferociously eloquent (and perpetually intoxicated) newspaper editor Dutton Peabody is worth the price of admission alone — and that’s before Stewart gets righteous and soulful, or the Duke gets to brooding.

A true American classic.

Honorable mentions:

1. “Citizen Kane” (1941). Duh, right? The cinephiles of the world would come calling if this one wasn’t represented. True, it’s a masterpiece (some say the greatest movie ever made), but if you haven’t seen it yet you don’t need me to tell you to. Check it out, of course. I first saw it as a junior high schooler in a journalism class. It quieted even a room full of bored, angsty teenagers. Its reputation is well deserved.

2. “The Paperboy” (2012). This one had everything going for it and still couldn’t measure up to the book (a minor masterpiece by Pete Dexter, be sure to check it out). Still, it’s a unique, fun movie with a great cast. It stars Matthew McConaughey and David Oyelowo as two Miami newspaper reporters who travel back to McConaughey’s hick hometown to investigate the events surrounding a brutal murder, trying to exonerate a man on death row (a genuinely creepy John Cusack) at the behest of his obsessive fan/groupie (Nicole Kidman, who received Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations for her performance). They are assisted by McConaughey’s troubled younger brother (Zac Efron), who both envies and distrusts his big city big bro.

3. “The Front Page” (1974) The other most beloved version of the most famous newspaper play ever (and a much more loyal adaptation than “His Girl Friday”), this comedy again sees a shifty editor ((Walter Matthau) attempting to con his best friend/best reporter (Jack Lemmon) into staying on the job, despite the other man giving notice with the intent of settling down to get married (to Susan Sarandon no less) and start a new, quieter career.

4. “The Wire” Season Five (2008)

OK, it’s technically not a movie, but hear me out. The final season of the highly acclaimed series examines the relationship between police and the press, much the way earlier seasons focused on education or politics in Baltimore. You do not need to have seen the rest of the show to love the final season. I had not seen a single episode when I began at the start of Season Five. It’s that good. Of course, it may inspire you to start from the beginning, as it did me. But, regardless, I believe you’ll find, as I did, that Season Five is a masterpiece all on its own.

5. Charles Bronson double feature:

“Messenger of Death” (1988), in which ol’ “Death Wish” Charlie plays a Denver newspaper reporter investigating an attempt by a water company to exploit a violent feud between fundamentalist Mormons and take over their land, and “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus” (1991), where he’s a reporter distraught with grief over the recent death of his wife suddenly assigned to respond to a sad letter from a poor little girl asking for proof of Santa, are both totally worth seeking out. Bronson is a true American treasure, whose (admittedly) spotty filmography has not yet received the critical attention it deserves.

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