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5 Perfect Portrayals of Journalism in Film (According to a Journalist)

A big chunk of Thomas McCarthy’s excellent new movie Spotlight is set in the Boston Globe’s offices on Morrissey Boulevard in South Boston. I’ve been there a few times – once, on a tour with my Print Journalism grad program while I was in college, and many years later when I briefly contributed a few articles to the paper’s online arm (none, of course, on the level of importance or with the degree of skill that the movie chronicles).

It’s a fascinating, old-school place that – even in an age of BuzzFeed, TMZ and Twitter – practically exhales the importance of classic, grit-and-grind, uncover-the-truth-at-all-costs journalism.

McCarthy’s movie captures that persistent essence behind the mission of the Globe’s “Spotlight” team, uncovering the horrendous scope of the Catholic Church’s pedophile scandal and subsequent cover-up throughout Massachusetts. It’s a tribute to a profession that few movies have ever really accurately captured on film before. Here, though, is a list of recommendations for the movies that have actually gotten journalism right:

All the President’s Men (1976)

Photo via Warner Bros

The standard all other journalism movies are judged by – and the closest comparison (both in tone and in quality) to McCarthy’s Spotlight. This Alan J. Pakula masterpiece is a gripping, compelling look into the reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two intrepid Washington Post reporters who broke the Watergate scandal wide open and helped to take down a presidency.

Impeccably crafted by Pakula, scripted (by William Goldman), and acted (by Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman and Jason Robards), this is one of America’s greatest movies, and the best one ever made about journalism. Robards’ Oscar-winning performance is an absolute highlight.

Absence of Malice (1981)

Photo via Columbia Pictures

This 1981 Paul Newman – Sally Field starrer deals with the tricky ethics of sources and judgment in journalism, manifested through the relationship between a Miami liquor seller (Newman) and a local reporter (Field). It chronicles a tricky subject in captivating fashion, and the performances – ably supported by Wilford Brimley and Bob Balaban – are tremendous.  

Shattered Glass (2003)

Photo via Lionsgate

Billy Ray’s brilliant 2003 recounting of the Stephen Glass scandal at The New Republic was criminally overlooked at Oscar time. Hayden Christensen (AKA Anakin Skywalker) is surprisingly terrific as the eccentric B.S.’er at the heart of the story, and Peter Sarsgaard is brilliant as Chuck Lane – the Republic editor who blows the doors off the scandal.

It’s required watching for every journalism class, and it should be for anyone who’s ever picked up a paper.

Veronica Guerin (2003)

Photo via Buena Vista Pictures

Another underlooked gem. This Irish production (directed with Joel Schumacher’s usual flair) tells the story of the murdered Dublin reporter Veronica Guerin (Cate Blanchett), who dug too deep into the city’s insidious drug trade. It’s an impressive and captivating retelling of a story that sadly remains unresolved.

The Insider (1999) and Good Night and Good Luck (2005)

A pair of exceptional movies that deal with the messy entanglements between corporations, politics and corruption in broadcast, told through the frame of CBS News. The former deals with 60 Minutes’ refusal to report the message tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe) brought to producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino); the latter details Edward R. Murrow’s struggle against Joseph McCarthy’s Red Scare tactics in the early 1950’s.

Both are directed superbly (by Michael Mann and George Clooney), and the leads are all uniformly excellent. Watch both for an insightful look at just how many hooks corporate needs have in the supposed “free press.”

What’s your favorite movie based journalism? Give us a heads up in the comments below.


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