"All the President's Men," about reporters investigating the Watergate scandal, came out April 9, 1976
Newspapers and journalism have been mainstays of many classic movies
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Follow the money.
That was the mantra that came out of “All the President’s Men,” released 40 years ago Saturday. In fact, those three words became such a common saying that, these days, people assume it was part of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s book.
It wasn’t. Screenwriter William Goldman essentially coined the phrase for the movie.
That wasn’t the movie’s only influence.
The 1976 film, which starred Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the Watergate-exposing Washington Post reporters, was said to have inspired a generation of students to enter journalism (though some authors have doubted the claim). It was a box office success, the fourth highest-grossing movie of the year.
And it was widely praised. It garnered eight Oscar nominations, including best picture, though it lost to “Rocky.”
Even today, it may be the gold standard of journalism movies, a rich genre in movie history.
“All the President’s Men” certainly takes care of the checklist: dogged reporters in pursuit of a big story, slammed doors, painstaking research and even a little newsroom jocularity. In addition, It portrays investigative reporting as something noble, a quality it shares with the most recent best picture winner, “Spotlight.”
Not every journalism movie does. In fact, some of the great ones cast a skeptical eye on what is supposed to be a skeptical job. But then, why should it be otherwise?
So stop the presses. In no particular order, here are 16 news-oriented films that are fit to print – on film stock or digital. (Warning: Some of the clips contain adult language.)
’All the President’s Men’
Forty years later, “President’s Men’s” crackling plot, excellent performances (including Jason Robards as editor Ben Bradlee, for which he won an Oscar) and as-it-happens immediacy still make the film one to watch.
’The Parallax View’
This 1974 film about a reporter (Warren Beatty) who gets wind of a political conspiracy is dark and haunted where “President’s Men” aims for the light. Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well. Both “President’s Men” and “Parallax View” were directed by Alan J. Pakula, one of the great unsung directors of the era.
’The Front Page’
The rapid-fire dialogue of “The Front Page,” based on the 1928 Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play, establishes such a bond between reporter Hildy Johnson and editor Walter Burns that the 1931 movie was adapted into the 1940 romantic comedy “His Girl Friday,” with Rosalind Russell as Hildy. The film’s depiction of journalists shows them as hard-drinking, corner-cutting cynics – and so endearingly that the film has been remade (including a 1974 version with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau) and reworked several times. Well, the shoe (sometimes) fits.
’Ace in the Hole’
It certainly does with Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum, who’s lost several jobs and is trying to work his way back to the newspaper big time. When he stumbles on the story of a man trapped in a cave, he manipulates coverage to make his name – and the local citizens go along with it. Billy Wilder directed this pitch-black film from 1951.
At the time “Network” came out in 1976, it was seen as hyperbolic satire. A TV network willing to use the news as ratings-driven entertainment? An anchorman as the “Mad Prophet of the Airwaves”? “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”? Too bad screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981 and never got a chance to see today’s media landscape.
Holly Hunter stars as a TV producer, and Albert Brooks and William Hurt play network reporters in James L. Brooks’$2 1987 film. The film is full of good lines, many from Brooks’ nebbishy Aaron Altman – who also gets the world’s worst case of flop sweat – and features a love triangle that suggests the lure of empty-headed, rule-bending good looks over old-fashioned honesty. It also includes an aspect of the business with which journalists have become too familiar: layoffs.
Orson Welles’ film is considered by many to be the greatest of all time, and it’s not just for its groundbreaking camerawork and electric performances. “Kane” gets in nice digs at Time magazine newsreels – parodied in “News on the March” – and takes ethics seriously, particularly when Joseph Cotten’s Jedediah Leland writes a critical review of Kane’s wife. Seventy-five years later, there’s plenty to chew on.
’Good Night, and Good Luck’
George Clooney’s 2005 film about Edward R. Murrow and his challenge to communist-hunting Sen. Joseph McCarthy may have overstated Murrow’s impact, but it certainly works as a valentine to the news media and its hard-working, chain-smoking representatives.
’Sweet Smell of Success’
Speaking of smoke: When you tell a press agent, “Match me, Sidney,” you know who’s in charge. In 1957’s “Sweet Smell of Success,” it’s Burt Lancaster’s J.J. Hunsecker, based on powerful gossip columnist Walter Winchell, who’s calling the shots – especially when it comes to Tony Curtis’ Sidney Falco. The relationship between publicists and news organizations can be fraught, but few films paint it as darkly as “Success.”
Except for a couple TV clips, we never see Richard Nixon in “All the President’s Men.” In 2008’s “Frost/Nixon,” he’s practically the whole movie. Frank Langella plays Nixon as a man seeking redemption, control and revenge, and Michael Sheen’s David Frost is trying to nail him down. It’s a dramatic cat-and-mouse game – and sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s who.
’Absence of Malice’
In this 1981 film, Sally Field plays a reporter who prints scurrilous details about a liquor dealer, played by Paul Newman. Then she runs a story that prompts one of Newman’s friends to commit suicide. Then she starts an affair with Newman. Good journalism? It’s not even good sense – but it makes for a pretty good movie.
Stephen Glass wrote some great stories. Unfortunately, many of them were fabricated. This 2003 film stars Hayden Christensen as Glass and Peter Sarsgaard as Charles Lane, the New Republic editor who fired him after realizing the extent of Glass’ fakery.
’Wag the Dog’
When it comes to politicians and journalists, shiny objects are often the coin of the realm. “Wag the Dog,” the 1997 film directed by Barry Levinson from a script co-written by David Mamet, takes a cynical view of the relationship between the ruling class and the fifth estate, showing how easily the media – and the public – can be distracted from one story by another.
“The Paper,” from 1994, was a throwback to the days when journalists were depicted as colorful heroes. It stars Michael Keaton as a New York tabloid editor determined to prove the innocence of two black teenagers accused of murder. The film features a solid cast, including Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Marisa Tomei and Jason Robards, and direction by Ron Howard. Oh, and Keaton gets to yell “Stop the presses!”
OK, this isn’t really a film about journalism; it’s more a romantic comedy about a mismatched couple, newspaper columnist Ernie Souchak (John Belushi) and naturalist Nell Porter (Blair Brown). But Belushi’s character is based on the great Chicago columnist Mike Royko, and we need more movies with characters like Mike Royko.
The most recent best picture Oscar winner, about the Boston Globe reporters who investigated sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, is a study in low-key persistence. The cast of the 2015 film includes Keaton (like Robards, his “Paper” co-star, he has the right persona for a journalism movie), Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, and the way they go about their work – making calls, going through directories, knocking on doors, assembling spreadsheets – is anything but romantic. Yet it’s principled and honest, the best of what journalism – and journalism movies – can be.