Journalism At the Movies: The China Syndrome

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This is the last week of my spotlight on movies about journalism. For my last featured film,I have chosen the provocative The China Syndrome from 1979. It’s as much about journalism as the nuclear power industry. The film was quite controversial when initially released. Over 30 years later,it’s still a film worth studying.

In the film,

KTLA Television human interest reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) aspires to do hard-hitting news stories, whereas station brass wants to keep her to her current position. They’re more concerned with her looks than her skills as an investigative reporter. While doing a human interest story at the Ventana nuclear power plant, she stumbles onto a story that could give her the opportunity to do some hard news. While on-site, she witnesses what she thinks is a near nuclear disaster. Her freelance cameraman and friend, Richard Adams (Michael Douglas), secretly films the event as it unfolds in Ventana’s control room. However, the network kills the story due in part to liability issues (it’s a felony to film inside a nuclear power plant). Kimberly initially toes the company line,wanting to protect her career. However,Richard wants to use the film to really find out what happened. Uncovering the truth hits an early snag when the regulatory commission reports that the plant faced no major issue during the incident. Both Kimberly and Richard believe the quick and favorable report was due to the fact that development of another nuclear power plant is currently going through the public consultation process. Back at the plant, Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) , the supervisor on duty in the control room during the incident, believes that something indeed is wrong with the plant due to the event, when he felt a tremor on-site. His beliefs are strengthened due to some radioactive leak in the plant from an unknown source and the discovery of some falsified documents, the latter  of which he knows may be a threat to his life by the perpetrators. Jack, with Kimberly and Richard’s help, does whatever he can to get his story into the public consciousness to avert what he thinks is a potential nuclear meltdown at the plant. But the power company is determined to keep Jack quiet and to protect their billion dollar investment, namely Ventana.–IMDB

There are so many issues in the journalism industry brought up by this film worthy of discussion. First,there’s the fact that the news people are more interested in doing puff pieces than hard-hitting news. Human interest stories are fine. But the main function of journalism is to inform the public on the issues. Kimberly Wells wants to do real news. But the network is more interested in how she looks. Go figure. I don’t think you have to be a journalist to know that a potential nuclear meltdown should be the lead story on a newscast. That brings up another issue raised in the film: what do you do when you obtain something illegally,in this case film of something that could have a detrimental effect on the public? Do you do the responsible thing or risk getting sued because the ends justify the means? Finally,The China Syndrome brings to the forefront the question of how to deal with whistle blowers.How do you keep them safe when you know they’re risking everything to tell their story? Jack Lemmon’s character loves the plant. But it kills him to see a place he’s worked for and loved be run so irresponsibly.

The China Syndrome is a great film to watch and have a discussion about journalism ethics about afterwards. It’s a great journalism movie and superbly crafted thriller. The cast is superb. Jane Fonda gives a solid performance as a journalist who wants to do real news and breakthrough the gender barriers in her profession. Michael Douglas is great as the rebellious cameraman. And what more can be said about Jack Lemmon? He’s one of the greatest actors to ever walk the Earth. Here he turns in another brilliant performance as the whistle-blower at the plant. Director James Bridges also deserves credit,along with screen writers Mike Grey and T.S. Cook. One final note: there’s a great supporting performance by Wilford Brimley as Ted Spindler,Godell’s friend/colleague at the plant. He’s a joy to watch.

That’s it for journalism at the movies! Join me in June for my spotlight on great film car chases.

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Journalism At the Movies: Network

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For week three of my spotlight on journalism films,I’d like to focus on Sidney Lumet’s savage broadcast journalism satire Network. Released way back in 1976,it was a film light years ahead of its time. The story,characters,and writing hold up 40 years later.

Network‘s protagonist is Howard Beale (Peter Finch),the news anchor of UBS. Ratings are down and the network feels he’s lost his touch. Beale is fired by the head of the news division and his longtime friend Max Schumacher (William Holden). After being fired,Beale goes on the air and says he’s going to blow his brains out on the air in one week. The network is rightly furious and pulls him off the air. Beale insists he was drunk at the time and asks to go on the air one more time to go out with dignity. This is when Finch launches into the famous “mad as hell speech.” The monologue strikes a chord with audiences. Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway),the new and ambitious vice-president in charge of programming,sees Beale as a way to solve UBS’ ratings woes. Christensen convinces the network brass to create a show around Beale and also embrace counterculture programming. Max is appalled. He doesn’t want to see his friend exploited and is a newsman of the old school. It’s the contrast in views of how the network should be run that give Network its juice and sets up the third act.

I mentioned earlier that Network was a film ahead of its time. Look at today’s 24/7 cable channels. It’s not about investigative journalism and being public watchdogs anymore. It’s about ratings and money. This film also predicted the coming of reality TV and corporate takeover of media.

Network is populated with great actors. In addition to Finch,Holden,and Dunaway,there’s Robert Duvall and the always-wonderful character actor Ned Beatty. Beatty has a speech just as memorable as Finch’s.

The film is filled with complex,insightful monologues. Every actor hits theirs out of the park. The real star of the film isn’t even seen. It’s Paddy Chayefsky. He wrote the brilliant screenplay. Network is brilliant not only because of its all-star cast,but because it attacks its subject with ferocious,reckless abandon.

Sidney Lumet was one of our greatest directors. His resume included 12 Angry Men,Dog Day Afternoon,and The Verdict. All are classics in their own right. Lumet honed his craft on television for a long time before getting his break in film. Believe it or not,his feature film directorial debut was 12 Angry Men. What a way to start a film career! That film,and many of his others,are now rightly considered classics.

Network was brilliantly made on every level possible. It predicted what modern media has sadly become: a sensationalistic wasteland. It’s not about getting stories right and reporting what the public needs to know. It’s all about ratings and controversy. Maybe Paddy Chayefsky was clairvoyant.

Journalism at the Movies: All the President’s Men

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All this month I’m spotlighting films about journalism. This week’s selection has a special place in my heart. It’s All the President’s Men. Reading the book and seeing the movie inspired me to pursue my journalism degree. The tenacity of the reporters and how they fought to uncover the truth was one of the most amazing stories I’d ever seen on screen. So I had to include it in this spotlight. It’s one of the quintessential films about the journalism profession.

By now,you know the plot. Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate break-in that led to President Nixon’s resignation. What’s interesting is that when Woodward first goes to cover the break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters,it appears on the surface to be a pretty minor story. But from the beginning there are already top lawyers on the side of the defendants. Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) assigns Woodward and Bernstein to cover the story. The trail leads them to not just the Republican Party,but the White House. Along the way,Woodward and Bernstein hit roadblocks. That’s life in the world of reporting. They are helped by Woodward’s secret source Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook). The rest as they say is history.

All the President’s Men works for so many reasons.One of them is that the source material they had to begin with was great. If you haven’t read Woodward and Bernstein’s book already,you owe it to yourself to do so. Then there’s the fact that everyone was cast so well. Redford and Hoffman make a believable team. They’re two of our greatest actors. Then there are two scene-stealers. One is Jason Robards. He won and Oscar for his performance as Ben Bradlee. He’s the editor everyone in the news profession should have: demanding but supportive of his reporters. He’s not demanding because he’s a jerk. He’s demanding because he’s a genuinely dedicated newsman he wants to see stories done right. The news world of today could use more like him. And no discussion of All the President’s Men is complete without mentioning the brilliance of Hal Holbrook. While we don’t see much of him (he hides in the shadows of a parking garage while talking to Wooodward),his performance leaves an impression. Mysterious,haunting,knowledgeable…he’s a fascinating character. The secret meetings between Woodward and Deep Throat are some of the most suspenseful and effective in the film.

I also appreciated how accurate this film was about what it’s like to be a journalist. It’s not glamorous. Sometimes it’s very tedious. There are multiple scenes in the film of the reporters hunting down leads by making phone call after phone call or getting doors slammed in their faces when they track one down and no one wants to answer their questions. There’s even a great scene in the Library of Congress with Woodward and Bernstein just digging through government records. The overhead shot that pulls up more and more as we see all the information they have in front of them is astonishing. It’s a great way to show how enormous the story is they’re chipping away at.

Two last things I want to mention. One is Gordon Willis. He did the cinematography. The way he shot the whole film really gives you a sense of paranoia. The aforementioned scenes in the parking garage with Woodward and Deep Throat wouldn’t have been the same without his artistic touch. It’s absolutely brilliant! Finally,how could I not mention the director? Alan J. Pakula did a masterful job bringing a complex story to the screen. I really appreciate how he didn’t dumb the material down for a mass audience. This is a very talky film. But not one shot,not one moment of dialogue feels like a waste of time. All the President’s Men was part of Pakula’s Paranoia trilogy along with Klute and The Parallax View. He has a knack for thrillers. Pakula’s skillful direction is one of many reasons why All the President’s Men is still shown in journalism classes today and why film viewers keep coming back to it decades after the events in the film happened.

Journalism at the Movies: Ace in the Hole

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I earned my BA in print journalism. So this month I’ll be devoting my blog spotlight to films about the journalism profession. To kick things off I’d like to highlight an all too often overlooked masterpiece by Billy Wilder: Ace in the Hole. Released in 1951,it’s a scathing look at sensationalist journalism that features one of Kirk Douglas’ greatest performances.

In Ace in the Hole,Douglas plays Charles Tatum. He’s a down-on-his luck reporter that takes a job with a small newspaper in New Mexico. He’s been fired from major newspapers for all kinds of reasons: drinking,lying…even having an affair with the wife of one of his bosses. It’s a pretty dull job…until Tatum finds a man trapped in an old Indian dwelling. Tatum seizes the opportunity to use the story to make a name for himself. He takes over and prolongs the rescue effort. He even feeds stories to major newspapers. It turns into a media circus,and Tatum milks it for all it’s worth. He effectively manipulates all the people involved,including the victim’s widow and the unscrupulous sheriff.

Ace in the Hole was a film ahead of its time. But then Billy Wilder was a director ahead of his time. One of the many fascinating things about this film is that it doesn’t just giving an unflattering view of sensationalistic journalists. It has an equally dim view of the public and how they consume these types of stories. The onlookers at the dwelling at one point pay 25 cents admission just to gawk at the story. It’s easy to blame the media for these stories. But they wouldn’t cover them if they didn’t sell. Tatum is unethical,yes. But he’s just taking advantage of the public’s thirst for news stories that pander to the lowest common denominator. It’s a problem even today. Just look at the 24-hour news networks.

I really wanted to bring attention to Ace in the Hole because it doesn’t get mentioned enough in lists of great Billy Wilder films. Wilder is a victim of his own success in a way. Just look at some of his credits: Double Indemnity,Sunset Boulevard,Some Like It Hot,Sabrina,Witness for the Prosecution…his resume is just filled with classics! Ace in the Hole is one of Wilder’s many masterpieces. And Kirk Douglas gives a perfect performance as the unscrupulous Tatum. He can just as easily play heroes in films such as Spartacus as he can play anti-heroes,as is the case with Ace in the Hole. The film didn’t do well on initial release. But there is now a Criterion collection DVD that is helping it get the wider audience it richly deserves.