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Flashback Five – Print Media’s Glory Days on the Big Screen


james_rocchi_FF.jpgWith the newspaper dramas The Soloist and State of Play coming to theaters soon — and the venerable Chicago Sun-Times declaring bankruptcy this week — we at Flashback Five though we’d take a look at some of our favorite movies about the newspaper trade from the past several decades that not only work as great stories, but also show how the news business has been portrayed throughout the years.

1. Zodiac (2007)
David Fincher’s thriller only looks like it’s about one of America’s most infamous unknown serial killers. In a broader sense, it’s about how a madman manipulated the media in San Francisco, how one newsman (Robert Downey, Jr.) crumbled under the weight of the search for the truth, and how one reporter (Jake Gyllenhaal) followed a story — over days and months and years and decades — no matter where it led him, all the way down.

2. Absence of Malice (1981)
When reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) is given juicy information about a man’s supposed ties to organized crime, she’s so eager to get the story, she forgets to get the facts. With great performances by Paul Newman, Wilford Brimley and Field, Absence of Malice is a thriller built on the simple, scary fact that journalists are people, too… and people make mistakes. Field’s journalist does everything a reporter shouldn’t, and it’s that human fallibility that makes Absence of Malice stick.

3. The Front Page (1931)
The first (and some say best) adaptation of a classic play that’s been brought to the big screen four times, The Front Page revolves around a reporter (Pat O’Brien) who wants out and the editor (Adolphe Menjou) who wants to keep him in — especially when O’Brien’s sitting on the story of the year. Crackling, cynical and full of rat-a-tat dialogue, The Front Page was written by real-life newsmen Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. The ugly truth has never been more charming; the newsroom never more exciting. 

4. Citizen Kane (1941)

Based on the life of publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane isn’t just a visionary, exciting piece of filmmaking — it’s a gripping cautionary tale about what happens when newspapers become personal kingdoms, and how freedom of the press only applies if you own one. A cautionary tale on-screen and off (Hearst did what he could to kill Kane and Welles’ career, which turned out to be plenty), Citizen Kane‘s also a great tale of investigative reporting, as a man’s last word is researched and reviewed until it explains his whole life.

5. All the President’s Men (1977)
The movie that launched a thousand journalism school applications — and, more disturbingly, the modern era of the celebrity-reporter — All the President’s Men didn’t just show journalism in a heroic light, it showed journalism as real work, full of deadlines and dead ends. Reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) knocked on doors, took notes, cold-called strangers and searched through public records, ultimately bringing down a President.

Honorable Mentions:

Ace in the Hole (1951), from Billy Wilder, is an acid tale of a reporter (Kirk Douglas) who turns a story into a scam.

Shock Corridor (1963), a beloved Sam Fuller B-movie, begins as reporter Peter Breck goes undercover at a mental institution… and soon finds he can’t get out.

The Paper (1994) may be an uneven tale of modern news in New York, but the scenes between publisher Robert Duvall and bean-counter Glenn Close now seem painfully prescient.

Fletch (1985) took a comedic approach to the world of investigative journalism. Chevy Chase plays a renegade reporter sniffing out a story on drug trafficking; Richard Libertini is his frustrated editor.

The Pelican Brief (1993) is an above-average John Grisham thriller, but Denzel Washington’s sly charm as a D.C. investigative reporter (helping law student Julia Roberts) makes it truly worth watching.

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