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