Skip to main content

5 movies that get the newsroom right

By John P. Avlon, CNN contributor
updated 4:02 PM EDT, Sat June 23, 2012
In
In "All the President's Men" (1976), Dustin Hoffman, center, plays Carl Bernstein and Robert Redford is Bob Woodward.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • John Avlon: "The Newsroom" debuts this Sunday, a modern depiction of journalism
  • He names 5 good journalism movies that carry a sense of purpose, are entertaining
  • They include "Network," "All the President's Men," "Broadcast News," he says
  • "Good Night and Good Luck" a small masterpiece, he says; "His Girl Friday" a retro classic

Editor's note: John Avlon is a CNN contributor and senior political columnist for Newsweek and The Daily Beast. He is co-editor of the book "Deadline Artists: America's Greatest Newspaper Columns" and won the National Society of Newspaper Columnists' award for best online column in 2012.He is a regular contributor to "Erin Burnett OutFront" and is a member of the OutFront Political Strike Team. For more political analysis, tune in to "Erin Burnett OutFront" at 7 ET weeknights.

(CNN) -- With the debut of Aaron Sorkin's new show The Newsroom on HBO this Sunday, I've been thinking about the best film depictions of journalism in American history. Any 'best-of' list is inherently subjective, but you definitely don't need to be a journalist to appreciate the sense of purpose these classic films provide.

So without further ado and just for fun on a summer weekend, below are my nominations for the top five journalism films of all time.

"Network": Paddy Chayefsky's satire is still razor sharp after almost 40 years, offering a prophetic look at what would happen when news desks started answering to entertainment divisions.

The film also managed to anticipate the rise of Reality TV, with one surreal side plot in which a self-styled "liberation army" gets its own television show and immediately goes from talking about the proletariat to negotiating net versus gross contracts. But in the end it is a morality play, featuring William Holden, Faye Dunaway and Peter Finch as Howard Beale, a network anchor over the edge of a nervous breakdown who shouts the immortal line "I'm mad as hell and I'm not gonna take it anymore!"

During the meteoric rise and fall of Glenn Beck, I was half convinced that he'd announce he was punking us by trying to make Howard Beale come alive.

Entertainment: What Aaron Sorkin learned from CNN for "Newsroom"

"All the President's Men": The genius of this dramatic depiction of Watergate is that the movie keeps you in suspense even when everybody knows how the story is going to end.

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are a perfect pairing as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, with Jason Robards playing Ben Bradlee, all capturing the chase of a great story as it unfolds.

The film was made just a few years after Nixon's resignation, but somehow it does not sacrifice the film's sense of perspective on a time when journalists uncovered a corrosive conspiracy at the highest level of the government and toppled a president who only 20 months before had won a 49-state landslide.

John Avlon
John Avlon

"Good Night, and Good Luck": This George Clooney-directed 2005 film is a small masterpiece, filmed in black and white. David Strathairn perfectly captures the integrity of Edward R. Murrow facing down Joe McCarthy at a time when the witch hunt for the Communist enemy within was ending careers and creating an atmosphere of fear.

The film is funny and smart, with tight construction and an ensemble cast that includes Robert Downey Jr. and a chubbed-up Clooney as Murrow's producer Fred Friendly. The opening scene speech, taken from Murrow's own words, should be regular required viewing for anyone in the news industry. Key line: "To be persuasive we must be believable; to be believable we must be credible; to be credible we must be truthful."

"Broadcast News": Armed with a perfect cast of Albert Brooks, William Hurt and Holly Hunter, "Broadcast News" is a brilliant comedy that captures the outsized influence of the anchorman -- played by Jack Nicholson -- back in the days of the Big Three. Adding depth are cutaway scenes depicting the characters as neurotic children.

It is ultimately a story about ambition and unrequited love, offering a useful, if not particularly uplifting, meditation on the unsteady boundary between infatuation, love and trust.

Sorkin: "I'm a fiction writer"

"His Girl Friday": Howard Hawk directed this 1930s slapstick comedy, which is based on the Ben Hecht-penned screenplay for The Front Page. Cary Grant plays editor Walter Burns trying to woo his ex-wife and fellow journalist Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell) back to the world of the newsroom, with its roll-top desks, three-martini lunches, rotary phones and manual typewriters clacking away. In a nice bit of symmetry, the film debuted the overlapping dialogue technique that Aaron Sorkin later perfected.

Honorable mentions: Falling outside this list include "The Year of Living Dangrously," "Ace in the Hole," Will Ferrell's epic, hilarious performance as Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman," and the fifth season of "The Wire." Buy them, rent them, download them - but most of all, enjoy them.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Jon Avlon.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
updated 5:29 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Peter Bergen and David Sterman say the Kansas Jewish Center killings are part of a string of lethal violence in the U.S. that outstrips al Qaeda-influenced attacks. Why don't we pay more attention?
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Danny Cevallos says families of the passengers on Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 need legal counsel
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Frum says Russia is on a rampage of mischief while Western leaders and Western alliances charged with keeping the peace hem and haw
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Most adults make the mistakes of hitting the snooze button and of checking emails first thing in the morning, writes Mel Robbins
updated 1:54 PM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Wheeler says as middle-class careers continue to disappear, we need a monthly cash payment to everyone
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.
updated 11:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Donna Brazile recalls the 50th Anniversary of the Civil Rights Act as four presidents honored the heroes of the movement and Lyndon Johnson, who signed the law
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
Elmer Smith remembers Chuck Stone, the legendary journalist from Philadelphia who was known as a thorn in the side of police and an advocate for the little guy
updated 2:56 PM EDT, Sun April 13, 2014
Al Franken says Comcast, the nation's largest cable provider, wants to acquire Time Warner Cable, the nation's second-largest cable provider. Should we be concerned?
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Philip Cook and Kristin Goss says the Pennsylvania stabbing attack, which caused grave injury -- but not death, carries a lesson on guns for policymakers
updated 3:06 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Wikipedia lists 105 football movies, but all too many of them are forgettable, writes Mike Downey
updated 10:32 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
John Sutter and hundreds of iReporters set out to run marathons after the bombings -- and learned a lot about the culture of running
updated 12:49 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Timothy Stanley says it was cowardly to withdraw the offer of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali. The university should have done its homework on her narrow views and not made the offer
updated 10:16 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Al Awlaki
Almost three years after his death in a 2011 CIA drone strike in Yemen, Anwar al-Awlaki continues to inspire violent jihadist extremists in the U.S, writes Peter Bergen
updated 9:21 PM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
David Bianculli says Colbert is a smart, funny interviewer, but ditching his blowhard persona to take over the mainstream late-night role may cost him fans
updated 1:31 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Rep. Paul Ryan says the Republican budget places its trust in the people, not in Washington
updated 5:28 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Aaron David Miller says Obama isn't to blame for Kerry's lack of progress in resolving Mideast talks
updated 11:22 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
David Weinberger says beyond focusing on the horrors of the attack a year ago, it's worth remembering the lessons it taught about strength, the dangers of idle speculation and Boston's solidarity
updated 12:32 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Katherine Newman says the motive for the school stabbing attack in Pennsylvania is not yet known, but research on such rampages turns up similarities in suspects and circumstances
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri April 11, 2014
Simon Tisdall: Has John Kerry's recent track record left Russia's wily leader ever more convinced of U.S. weakness?
updated 12:40 PM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Mel Robbins says Nate Scimio deserves credit for acting bravely in a frightening attack and shouldn't be criticized for posting a selfie afterward
updated 2:39 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Wendy Townsend says the Rattlesnake Roundup -- where thousands of pounds of snakes are killed and tormented -- is barbaric
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Dr. Mary Mulcahy says doctors who tell their patients the truth risk getting bad ratings from them
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Peggy Drexler says the married Rep. McAllister, caught on video making out with a staffer, won't get a pass from voters who elected him as a Christian conservative with family values
updated 7:43 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
David Frum says the president has failed to react strongly to crises in Iran, Syria, Ukraine and Venezuela, encouraging others to act out
updated 4:57 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Eric Liu says Paul Ryan gets it very wrong: The U.S.'s problem is not a culture of poverty, it is a culture of wealth that is destroying the American value linking work and reward
updated 7:51 AM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Frida Ghitis writes: "We are still seeing the world mostly through men's eyes. We are still hearing it explained to us mostly by men."
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Thu April 10, 2014
Chester Wisniewski says the Heartbleed bug shows how we're all tangled together, relying on each other for Internet security
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Wed April 9, 2014
Danny Cevallos says an Ohio school that suspended a little kid for pointing his finger at another kid and pretending to shoot shows the growth in "zero tolerance" policies at school run amok
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT