The trailer for Veronica Guerin is jam-packed with action. Bullets fly and cars speed through the streets against a backdrop of chilling music. At one point, Cate Blanchett as reporter Veronica Guerin says of risking her life, “I don’t want to do it, I have to do it.” The ominous tagline flashes across the screen: “There is no truth without risk and no change without courage.”
But when National Post movie critic Katrina Onstad reviewed the film, she didn’t buy the hero angle. “I couldn’t believe anyone could be that stupid,” she says. “She was violating Basic Reporting 101.” In the film, reporter Veronica Guerin chases drug dealers for a story. In one scene she even shows up at a drug lord’s home, demanding an interview. Even after being shot, she still pursues her story and is eventually murdered.
Journalism has been a prevalent film topic since the silent era. In the 1930’s journalists began appearing as main characters, mostly in screwball comedies like The Front Page. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the character of the heroic journalist really emerged. Reporters were portrayed more as private eyes who solved mysteries. A classic example is Humphrey Bogart in Deadline U.S.A., starring as the tough-talking, streetwise managing editor Ed Hutcheson.
It was the 1976 film All the President’s Men that epitomized the on-screen image of the heroic journalist. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein respectively, the two reporters who famously uncover the Watergate scandal, which leads to Nixon’s resignation. “The film impressed upon people the idea of journalism as a heroic crusade,” says Liam Lacey of The Globe and Mail. “People began to see it as a significant social job to have.” Following the release of the film, there was a surge in journalism school enrollment. “The film venerated the press,” says Onstad. “Suddenly people wanted to be these great heroes.”
Jeremy Schneider, a post-graduate broadcast journalism student at Ryerson University, is one such person. While studying English literature at Western University, he got into films “big time”. He was particularly inspired by Broadcast News (“It shows you that a good anchor looks the part and is the part”), and like many before him, All the President’s Men. Echoing a line from the film, he says “[It] made me realize what journalists can do when they’re hungry.”
Towards the 90’s, however, films began to treat journalism contemptuously. Around the same time, polls were showing that people regarded journalism with low esteem, and this cynicism was reflected at the cinema. One 1999 poll suggested that 75 per cent of Americans think reporters are “biased, inaccurate and prying”, and over 40 per cent claim to have lost faith in the media . There was also a lot of dirty press going on at the time, especially with the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. Now, journalism tends to be lumped in with corporate media.
TV journalists are a popular target. In 1994’s Natural Born Killers, sleazy tabloid reporter Wayne Gale (played by Robert Downey Jr.) promises to make serial killers Mickey and Mallory big stars. “The media is now shown as a cancerous villain,” says Onstad. “We’ve been reduced to hand-wringing bad guys.”
Of course, there are exceptions. Films like Veronica Guerin and The Insider, both based on true stories, are a throwback to the journalist-as-hero image seen in All the President’s Men. In The Insider, Al Pacino plays a 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman, who is trying to convince a former tobacco company employee, Jeff Wigand, to talk about the company’s malpractice on air. Wigand is anxiously reluctant at first, but Bergman convinces him, then tries to shield when he is threatened by the company. Bergman emerges as a valiant protector. However, Onstad notes the film is another example where “the journalist is really a cop”.
Few Hollywood films come close to portraying the day to day life of a reporter. If you ask Toronto Star critic Peter Howell, The Paper is the only film that ever came close. “I felt like I was seeing myself onscreen,” he says. The 1994 film is actually about two rival papers (one of which is modeled after The New York Times) and gives the viewer a real sense of the hustle and bustle of the newsroom. “Movies tend to emphasize the extremes,” says Lacey. “You never see a movie about a real estate reporter or the person who covers city hall.”
Typically, the reality of being a reporter is sacrificed for something more dramatic. “The details of the profession get glossed over because they’re not as romantic. The reality is that you spend most of your time on a computer alone, or trying to get people on the phone,” says Onstad. She was quick to note that in Veronica Guerin the reporter never uses a notepad or a tape recorder. “You always see these ‘stop the presses’ clichés. You never see someone working hard on a story only to have it spiked,” says Star critic Geoff Pevere. “No one realizes that you’ve always got a pitchfork up your ass from your editor telling you what he expects you to write,” says Howell.
Usually actors will do almost anything to create an authentic character, from starving themselves to living on communes, observes Howell. Unfortunately, when it comes to portraying journalists, they rarely research their roles. “For almost every cop movie ever made, you hear about how the actor went and spent a week riding in the police car, drinking bad coffee, and hanging around the jail,” says Howell. “But when they play journalists, they base it all on what they’ve experienced.”
If this is true, it’s no wonder actors have a negative view of the same media that hounds them for quotes and photographs. It is this “paparazzi-style” of journalism that Howell feels is fueling society’s negative attitude toward journalists. Ultimately, Howell says, the people who care most about how journalists are portrayed in films are journalists themselves. “I know that if I was asked to play a sheet metal worker or a ballerina I would never get it exactly right.”
Besides educating actors on the demands of being a journalist, Onstad suggests that people who make movies should concentrate less on making them heroes and more on simply making them human. “They should slow down the pace so the character isn’t held hostage to explosive scenes,” she says. “There should be more concern about turning them into people.” She says Shattered Glass (http://www.shatteredglassmovie.com/), an entry at the last Toronto International Film Festival and now in wide release, did an excellent job of portraying Stephen Glass, the young journalist who fabricated his articles. “You really got a sense of his motivation,” Onstad says. “With Veronica Guerin, you knew nothing about her from that film.”
Movies of note
The Front Page (1931)
A top reporter for a Chicago paper is about to leave the profession, until his editor convinces him to cover the hanging of an insane murderer.
His Girl Friday (1940)
A newspaper editor, about to lose his wife and former employee to another man, tries to get her to write one last big story.
Memorable quote: “I just said I’d write it, I didn’t say I wouldn’t tear it up!”
Citizen Kane (1941)
Following the death of a multimillionaire newspaper tycoon, a reporter interviews his coworkers for a retrospective.
Memorable quote: “Rosebud.”
Ace in the Hole (1951)
A reporter is bored with his work until he discovers a man trapped alive in a mine. He then prolongs the rescue efforts so he can write stories and create a media circus.
Memorable quote: “I can handle big news and little news. And if there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog.”
Deadline U.S.A (1952)
A tough editor (Humphrey Bogart) tries to complete an expose on a gangster…before his paper is sold to a commercial rival.
Memorable quote: “That’s the press, baby! The press! And there’s nothing you can do about it! Nothing!”
Sweet Smell of Success (1957)
An influential New York columnist is determined to break up the engagement between his sister and a jazz musician. He hires a sleazy press agent to do the dirty work.
Memorable quote: “Here’s mud in your column!”
The managing editor of a city paper struggles with the dramas in the newsroom and in his personal life.
Memorable quote: “But if you only read the comic section or the want ads-it’s still the best buy for your money in the world.”
All the President’s Men (1976)
Two Washington Post reporters uncover the Watergate scandal that leads to Nixon’s resignation.
Memorable quote: “They’re hungry. You remember when you were hungry?”
After being fired, an aging TV news anchorman announces his intention to commit suicide on air, and his further mad ravings are exploited for ratings by the network.
Memorable quote: “Television is not the truth! Television is a goddamned amusement park!”
Absence of Malice (1981)
A prosecutor leaks a false story about the son of a dead Mafia boss. The reporter who picks up the story is cleared under the absence of malice rule in libel law.
Memorable quote: “You had a leak? You call what’s goin’ on around here a leak?! Boy, the last time there was a leak like this, Noah built hisself a boat.”
Broadcast News (1987)
A network news producer must decide between a talented reporter and a flashy, handsome new guy who represents “entertainment news”.
Memorable quote: “He personifies everything that you’ve been fighting against. And I’m in love with you. How do you like that? I buried the lead.”
Bright Lights, Big City (1988)
A small-town boy gets a magazine job in New York, where he gets swallowed up in the fast-paced culture of alcohol and drugs.
Memorable quote: “There’s a certain shabby nobility in failing all by myself.”
Natural Born Killers (1994)
A pair of serial killers are wrongly glorified by the mass media, elevating them to cult hero status.
Memorable quote: “Repetition works, David. Repetition works, David.”
The Paper (1994)
A tabloid editor, fed up with long hours and low pay, considers an offer to edit a more respectable rival paper that is suspiciously like The New York Times.
Memorable quote: “You wanna cover Brooklyn then cover Brooklyn! But let me tell you something, it’s a little tough to do from a barstool in Manhattan.”
Up Close and Personal (1996)
Woman tries to get work as TV reporter. Handsome boss hires her. Reporter and boss fall in love.
Memorable quote: “Some people in this business get jaded because it’s always the same awful stories. And it is the same stories – but they’re happening to different people.”
The Insider (1999)
A 60 Minutes producer tries to get a former tobacco company research biologist to go on air and talk about the company’s malpractice.
Memorable quote: “I’m Lowell Bergmann, I’m from 60 Minutes. You know, you take the 60 Minutes out of that sentence, nobody returns your phone call.”
Almost Famous (2000)
A 15-year-old Rolling Stone writer follows fictional band Stillwater around on tour and tries not to let his new friendships get in the way of telling an honest story.
Memorable quote: “He was never a person, he was a journalist!”
Veronica Guerin (2003)
A crusading Irish reporter goes up against drug lords for a story, and is eventually murdered by them.
Memorable quote: “I’m a reporter. I’m supposed to be writing about things that matter.”
Shattered Glass (2003)
In this true story, a fame-seeking young reporter fabricates more than half of his stories, and is eventually exposed.
Memorable quote: “Even Woodward and Bernstein went out for a burger now and then, and they won the Pulitzer.”