Scribblers and Scandals: Journalism in the Movies

At The Movies

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Sen. George Fergus (Jeff Daniel) is interrogated by reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) in “State of Play” Photo credit: Glen Wilson. Copyright © 2009 Universal Studios

With movie houses still closed, the Hill Rag offers another selection of recent movies to watch while warming the couch. This month’s theme is contemporary journalism, whether press, TV, or  magazines, a collection of smart, fast-paced films from the last 20 years that have nothing to do with the current administration or the current pandemic, but which have their own rhythms and surprises. Readers can find these titles on disc (rental or purchase) or on selected streaming services.

The Post
(2017) — This compelling journalistic thriller by Steven Spielberg keeps the tension up with propulsive cutting and swift and smart dialogue delivered by a bunch of seasoned players led by Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee and Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham. As the crusty, ink-stained scribe, Hanks doesn’t much look like Bradlee, but he gets the man’s energy and growl right and delivers his lines with pungency and weight. The contrast with Streep’s Graham is stark. We see her first in sweet hostess mode, a woman allergic to confrontation. The dramatic arc Streep must undertake to become a decision-maker is glorious to watch.

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy, Michael Keaton and John Slattery in “Spotlight.” Photo Credit: Kerry Hayes; Distributor: Open Road Films.

Spotlight
(2015) — An impeccably crafted film by writer-director Tom McCarthy about Boston Globe journalists unearthing the scandal of sexual assaults by Catholic priests.  It chronicles the group’s detailed pursuit of their bleak story, piece by relentless piece.  The script is splendid in building its case, gingerly matching suspenseful exchanges with purposeful exposition. The cast is a dream, one of the best acting ensembles assembled in recent years; picking out any one individual as “best actor” would be fruitless, because the collective is so superb. Everyone performs with an honesty and sincerity that does honor to the theme.

State of Play
(2009) – This journalistic thriller (based on a British TV series) offers a rarity: a solidly crafted motion picture about Washington, DC.  And though the film takes pains to incorporate the city into its narrative, it still plays with some of the old clichés of politics in film. Even by shining light on the underside of our politics and fiddling with our geography,  State of Play remains a briskly-paced, smartly written, and entertaining thriller, with some deft performances, especially by leads Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams. It’s easy to get caught up in and challenging to follow—and it uses much of a DC that we can all recognize.

The Devil Wears Prada
(2007)  – A sharp take on the fashion magazine world (based on “Vanity Fair”) enlivened by a crafty script and featuring an indelible performance by a super-cool and hellish Meryl Streep as a top fashion czarina.  The film is amusingly schizophrenic, mocking the glossy trivialities of “high fashion” while, at the same time, embodying its appeal through the hard work it takes to “look good.” Effective and funny supporting performances by Emily Blunt (her break-out role) and Stanley Tucci, as magazine staffers who stay just the right side of caricature.

Good Night, and Good Luck
(2006) – A stirring retelling of Edward R. Murrow’s challenge to Senator McCarthy in the mid-1950’s, shot in a sumptuous and velvety black-and-white (that vividly recalls the era) and on appropriately close, hermetic sets (that create the tension).  George Clooney, playing Fred Friendly, directs from a script by him and Grant Heslow and elicits a righteous  performance from David Straitharn as the lead. Straihairn doesn’t possess a close likeness to Murrow, but he wins you over completely by uncannily invoking the nobility and distinctive cadences of the man.

Shattered Glass
(2003) – Dramatization of a notorius journalistic scandal at Washington’s New Republic magazine that gets the tone of an ambitious political journal down pat and has much to say about the battle between integrity and ambition in the field.  Hayden Christensen plays the very young writer Stephen Glass who gains fame and notoriety through inventing clever features before his work is questioned by another publication, then unmasked by his own editor Chuck Lane (Peter Saarsgard). Christensen brings rank callowness and grinning cynicism to his character, contrasting with Saarsgard’s unassuming but very dogged hero.

Besides the lineup above, I wanted this month’s column to include at least one review of a current movie that will have resonance for many in the DC area.

A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps
The Kennedy Administration changed Washington in many ways, one of which was leading young Americans to answer the new president’s call for a commitment to public service. Many  young acolytes settled in the DC area to sign up for the ground-breaking Peace Corps.  A new video release, “A Towering Task: The Story of the Peace Corps,” directed by Alana DeJoseph, is the first feature documentary to chronicle the remarkable history of the Corps (the film, running 107 minutes, began streaming in  video venues on May 22).

In  early 1961, President John F. Kennedy launched the Peace Corps, and, since then, more than 200,000 volunteers have traveled to more than 60 countries to carry out the organization’s mission of international cooperation.  Nearly 60 years later, Americans–young and old alike–still want to both serve their country, aid countries in their development, and perhaps most pertinently, discover their own place in the world, Presented chronologically, the narrative, delivered by Annette Bening, begins with the promising Sargent Shriver years when volunteers were mostly recent college grads typically offering basic services and education to overseas countries in needy areas. By the 1970’s, the composition of volunteers had broadened, including older Americans (like Lilian Carter) and persons with more focused professional skills. Later on, many countries  who had progressed out of Third World conditions opted out of the need for volunteers.

Through the decades,  the agency struggles to remain relevant amid great sociopolitical change, as well as fighting for its very existence.  That history is  principally outlined by an amazing number of ex-PCVers and staff (from the 1960’s until yesterday) telling their own stories, including recent ones from Colombia, Afghanistan, and the Ukraine.  Many of them underline that the Corps’ profoundest outcome was not so much to “develop” other countries and peoples but rather to “change themselves” with a greater awareness of the wider world and an international  consciousness.