During this election “media” has become a four-letter word. That isn’t to say that hasn’t always been the case. Media is an amorphous concept today, blending screaming heads on politics and millennial thinkpieces on popular culture. Some of the mistrust is only natural—there has always been a shadowy quality to most media, we often don’t see the face or hear the voice of the journalist whose account we are reading. When we see pundits on television, we often only hear them in soundbites and catchphrases, truncated without real discussion. This is why movies about the media are so important. We are able to see the work, sometimes step-by-step, see the personalities, see the people who are see often shielded by the greater concept of media. Just as filmmakers love to make movies about movies, they love to make movies about media. This may be because many filmmakers see themselves as narrative journalists; storytellers looking for objective truths in a fictionalized world. This interest has led to great films, many of which are available to stream now across a number of platforms.
His Girl Friday [Howard Hawks, 1940]
Available on Amazon Prime
One of the absolute classics set in the newspaper world at the height of the business, His Girl Friday is a quintessential fast-talking comedy. Adapted from very popular play [and five times a film] The Front Page, His Girl Friday stars the delightful pair Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as exes and former newsroom co-workers who come back together to work on the story of a man set for execution. But Grant’s editor has ulterior motives, trying to break up his ex-wife reporter from her new beau. Today, the film feels particularly important for its battle of the sexes angle even coming from an era and genre that was known for this. Russell as Hildy Johnson is one of the most iconic film characters of all time—a female in a male dominated workplace who totally holds her own. Interestingly, Hildy was a male character in the original The Front Page and adapted by filmmaker Howard Hawks. This changes the film subtly but transcendentally. His Girl Friday remains one of the exemplary screwball comedies, very much because of its intelligent and fast-paced newsroom environment and the gender politics therein.
All the President's Men [Alan J. Pakula, 1976]
Available for Digital Rental
Released the same year as Network, All the President’s Men is about as opposite in tone of the acerbic satire as possible. The film portrays Bob Woodward [Robert Redford] and Carl Bernstein [Dustin Hoffman], two reporters from the Washington Post who are entrusted with vital information from a secretive source. For a film about two writers, All the President’s Men plays like a thriller though with telephone calls and research—and yet still incredibly tense and quickly paced. Woodward and Bernstein are the most ideal version of journalists: they are intelligent, inquisitive, determined, and not driven by their political leanings. As the Network’s version of over-the-top, sensationalized journalism was becoming true, All the President’s Men shows the substance and impact of journalism at its best. Other than that, it’s only a perfectly directed, edited, written, and acted film.
The Newsroom [2012-2014]
Available on Amazon Prime
OK, so The Newsroom isn't a movie, but it is perhaps the most complex look at media in recent years. HBO’s series has all the features of its creator, Aaron Sorkin. Jeff Daniels plays Will McAvoy, a character obviously inspired by Howard Beale: an ultra serious, tell-it-like-it-is news anchor at a failing network. Its unique twist is covering real news events with the benefit of time and finely tuned scripted speeches. It’s a bit unnatural when compared to the 24-hour news we’re so accustomed to seeing, but it works in a revisionist history sort of way. Of course, this also comes off as smug. In the third and final season, the show’s week-by-week narrative shifts to a whole season arc—a fictionalized representation of the Edward Snowden story. While you won’t get as much intellectual interest than from watching Citizenfour, the series distills the many complicated political and legal themes in a manageable way. Apart from the on air news, The Newsroom fantastically portrays every level of the production, from the researchers to the executives. Like Network, the interplay behind the camera can be incredibly compelling and the process from news to “the news” is fun to watch.
Nightcrawler [Dan Gilroy, 2014]
Available on Netflix
Nightcrawler takes the cynical background of Network and exports it to the modern age, a more cutthroat, handmade, and immediate version of the news—basically stripping out the black comedy along the way. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a determined and extremely anti-social young man who breaks into the world of late-night news as a freelance videographer. In a slightly dystopian [but incredibly realistic] version of Los Angeles, Louis Bloom takes on increasingly dangerous exploits to get the most gruesome news possible. His obsessive behavior latches onto an anchor [Rene Russo] who desperately lives by the “if it bleeds, it leads” mantra. Nightcrawler is incessantly bleak, with a truly unhinged lead performance. It works in two genres that have become popular in modern media—TMZ-like paparazzi and true crime—two genres that accentuate sleaze and push the limits of the acceptable. As Louis digs deeper into this world, the viewer simultaneously becomes seduced and disengaged. Will the exaggerated tones of Nightcrawler ultimately become the tenor of media just as we’ve already come shockingly close to living Network?
Spotlight [Tom McCarthy, 2015]
Available on Netflix
The most recent Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is the perfect encapsulation of the importance of investigative journalism, without frills or hero worship. Focused on the Boston Globe’s Spotlight division and the uncovered widespread sexual molestation scandal in the Catholic Archdiocese, Spotlight is powerful for its tragic themes, but also the process of its work. The ensemble cast, featuring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and Rachel McAdams, works as much like a well-oiled machine as the journalists they portray. Their work is enhanced by the on-the-edges commentary on the rise of new media. Taking place in the early 2000s, Spotlight foresees the death of print for the digital ink that has pervaded our lives, where we get most of our news from Twitter, Facebook, and instantly updated takes on evolving stories. This is a sharp contrast to the Spotlight team’s work, which is slow and deliberate and thorough. Though we haven’t totally lost newspapers, Spotlight will make you nostalgic for the medium.