The best, most real journalism movies
Last month, while I was visiting my brother downstate, we watched “Fletch,” the 1985 movie starring Chevy Chase as an investigative newspaper columnist who uncovers an international drug/fraud conspiracy.
If there’s one thing journalists love, it’s stories about journalists. And “Fletch” is a great one, because who doesn’t love Chevy Chase?
But it is not the best newspaper movie, and certainly not the most realistic. Very few reporters get to fly around the country chasing leads, wearing disguises, ignoring their editor’s threats to fire them while running up huge expense tabs.
By far, the best journalism movie, and one that inspired me and countless other book-nerd kids to get into reporting, is “All the President’s Men,” Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman’s performance as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.
The movie is realistic, of course, because it’s based on Woodward and Bernstein’s firsthand account of how the story is reported. There are scenes in that movie familiar to any reporter: Knocking on countless doors and having countless doors slammed in your face. Brainstorming with a partner on the drive to and from the newsroom. Sitting, deflated and defeated, in a fast-food joint when yet another lead reveals yet another dead end. Excitedly turning in copy, thinking you’ve landed on a major scoop, only to have your editor flog you because you haven’t done as good a job as you think you have.
But that movie is not without Hollywood hyperbole. In the film, Deep Throat — revealed decades later to be FBI administrator Mark Felt — is always a shadowy, paranoid figure in underground parking garages. While that stuff happened, Woodward makes it clear in the book that he and Felt frequently met and talked out in the open, at bars and restaurants near D.C.
Plus, while journalists the world over assumed Woodward was some master gumshoe for connecting with Felt as a source, Woodward revealed in his book “The Secret Man” that he actually met Felt simply by happenstance. A young Woodward ended up sitting next to Felt while delivering a package to the same office where Felt had an appointment.
About 60 percent of good journalism is dumb luck. The other 40 percent is knowing what to do with that luck when you find it.
And “All the President’s Men” does not depict the experience of the typical journalist. For one, Watergate-caliber stories are few and far between, and most reporters work in small newsrooms that don’t have the budget to send reporters to Florida to chase Mexican checks.
For my money, “Spotlight,” the 2015 drama about the Boston Globe’s expose of pedophilic priests, is the most realistic.
My favorite scene in the film is the one in which the reporters are scouring through church directories, entering names and dates into Excel spreadsheets to determine how often priests were shuffled around in the Boston diocese. An unsettling amount of investigative reporting is done with Excel.
It’s exciting when you know what the data is showing you, but I always felt bad for the Michigan State University journalism students who came to job-shadow me, expecting to see smoky meetings with Deep Throat, and instead saw me entering hundreds of numbers into a spreadsheet.
But that’s how it’s really done, and Excel has helped me over the years prove that more Michigan foster kids are dying today than when the state was sued over such deaths 10 years ago. Excel has helped me compile evidence that the state has manipulated records to fool a federal judge about foster care caseloads, and helped me show that legally mandated fire safety inspections are not happening throughout Michigan.
“Spotlight” also begins with a new editor coming to town and all the reporters worried about their jobs. You can’t get much more realistic than that. If you want to know what investigative reporting is really like, watch that film.
Honorable mention, for two movies that are fun, but not realistic journalism: “Zodiac,” the Robert Downey Jr./Jake Gyllenhaal film about a newspaper cartoonist who tries to track down the Zodiac killer in San Francisco, and “The Men Who Stare at Goats,” a quasi-nonfiction film about a reporter who uncovers the military’s experiments with psychic powers.
“The Post,” the recent film about the Washington Post’s work with the Pentagon Papers, was good. But Tom Hanks’ Ben Bradlee was lame compared to Jason Robards’, and that film focused far too much on the editors. We don’t matter much at all.
Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.