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Top 10 Newshound Movies

By Tom Piccolo · January 3, 2014

Ok, I’ll admit I haven’t even seen Anchorman 2, and many of you will think right off the bat that is a huge omission from this list. But in my opinion, a movie should be around for a while before it competes in a list that includes Citizen Kane, All the Presidents Men, and Network.  I know there will be those who disagree, but the original Anchorman didn’t make my top 10 either. On my original list of 22 movies, Anchorman was a contester. I put the list out to my Facebook friends; they came back with an additional 26 movies.

There were many good dramas that didn’t make the cut, such as The China Syndrome, The Year of Living Dangerously, Absence of Malice, and Frost/Nixon. And some good comedies as well, like Fletch, It Happened One Night, Bruce Almighty and The Front Page with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau. Let’s not forget superhero movies like Superman and Spiderman. They were newspapermen in their alternate life.

As opposed to using the objective eye of the journalist, researching all the information that was to be had, polling the general public, and reporting the conclusions, I decided to just pick my 10 favorites. So here they are. Feel free to publish yours in the comment section.

10. Groundhog Day (1993)

I’ve been in the television news business for over thirty years, and as anyone in news can tell you, Groundhog Day captures a snarky cynicism that comes when covering the same type of story over and over again.  In this 1993 movie directed by Harold Ramis, Bill Murray plays TV weatherman, Phil Connors, assigned for the third year in row to cover Punxsutawney Phil, a weather-predicting rodent located in rural Pennsylvania. Connors’ plan is to cover the story expeditiously and quickly exit the small town.  A blizzard traps Connors, his producer Rita (Andie MacDowell), and cameraman Larry (Chris Elliott), and forces the news team to stay overnight. Waking in the morning, Phil Connors finds himself in a “time loop”, reliving Groundhog Day repeatedly, and desperately attempting to break the cycle.

Groundhog Day has made one very significant contribution to the news industry.  Whenever news crews are covering the same story for three or four days in a row, you will inevitably hear some one say “It’s Groundhog Day”.

9. The Philadelphia Story (1940)

Depicting the tabloid news coverage of highbrow social events and scandals, George Cukor directs this 1940 romantic comedy staring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart. Philadelphia socialite Tracy Lord (Hepburn), whose marriage to former Spy magazine employee Dexter Haven (Grant) ends in divorce when his alcohol induced antics fail to live up to her high social standards.  Tracy plans to remarry a levelheaded businessman, George Kittredge. Spy magazine editor, Sidney Kidd is desperate to cover the wedding.  He brokers a deal with Dexter, agreeing not to publish a scandal-ridden article about Tracy’s father in exchange for the wedding coverage. Dexter shows up to the family mansion with Spy reporter Mike Connor (Stewart) and photographer, Liz Imbrie, and introduces them as friends of Tracy’s absent brother, Junior.  When Tracy grows suspicious, Dexter reveals the truth about the situation, and she agrees to go along with the ploy to save her family’s reputation.

Long before tabloids mined telephone messages to dig up dirt on celebrities, this movie spotlighted the public’s fascination with the foibles of the rich and famous. It also points to the crafty lengths the gossip pages will employ to achieve their ends. 

8. His Girl Friday (1940)

It is often said there are only two types of people in the news industry: those trying to get into the business, and those trying to get out. Star reporter for The Morning Post, Hildy Johnson (Rosalind Russell), decides to abandon the crazy lifestyle of a newspaperwomen and settle down by marrying a very unexciting insurance broker, Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). When ex-husband and Morning Post editor, Walter Burns (Cary Grant), becomes aware of Hildy’s plan, he tries every trick in the book to break up the engagement. He entices Hildy to cover one last story, the execution of convicted murder, Earl Williams.  All of Burns’ conniving antics fail to deter Hildy. Finally it is the reporter’s love of the “big scoop” that scuttles her dream of a quiet life in Albany, NY.

This zany comedy directed by Howard Hawks brings to light one of the big dichotomies of covering news:  the fantasy of a simple, everyday life versus the adrenalin driven, fast track lifestyle following the top stories. Ironically, covering news is a business that many people in the industry just love to hate.

7. Woman of the Year (1942)

A touching romantic comedy, this is the first of nine films which pair Katherine Hepburn and Spenser Tracy. Hepburn plays an international affairs writer, Tess Harding, a character based on newspaper columnist Dorothy Thompson. Harding writes for the New York Chronicle, and engages their sports writer Sam Craig (Spencer Tracy) in a column-for-column debate about baseball.  Sam invites Tess to a baseball game where she is thrown into the male-dominated world of the press box. How times have changed! At the time, a woman in the press box at a baseball game was a novelty. Today it is not uncommon to find a female sports reporter in the locker room after the game.

Despite their differences, Tess and Sam fall in love and get married.  The debate in their marriage becomes the central focus of the movie, examining the changing role of women, both in the family and in professional life.

Though controversial when the movie was made, it still has relevance today. This film holds a particular delight for professional couples, and those in the news business, who are trying to balance a busy career with family responsibilities, especially the issue of childcare.

6. The Insider (1999)

The Insider, staring Al Pacino, Russell Crowe and Christopher Plummer, drives home the complexities of dealing with the whistle-blower in the context of investigative journalism.

The movie is based on a true story detailing the efforts of 60 Minutes’ producer, Lowell Bergman (Pacino) in his pursuit to obtain and air an interview with Jeffrey Wigand (Crowe). Wigand, a former Brown and Williamson Vice-President, blows the whistle on Big Tobacco’s manipulation of nicotine levels in cigarettes. Christopher Plummer plays renowned investigator reporter, Mike Wallace, who finally gets to conduct an interview with Wigand.  Further complicating the plot, a tug of war ensues between CBS Corporate and the CBS News division to broadcast the interview, bringing added dimension to this compelling news drama.

5. Broadcast News (1987)

When this romantic comedy-drama was released in 1987, I had already spent 3 years working as a freelance network news soundman.  Watching the film brings back memories of a time in television news when stories were recorded on videotapes the size of a hard-covered novel, and producers ran from the edit room, tape in hand, to get the story on the air. Much has changed in the production of television news, but many of the elements in this movie still hold true today. Most notable are the character types who find their way into the television news business.

Broadcast News begins with three very clever personality studies. The opening scenes depict the main characters as children, suggesting that producer Jane Craig, reporter Aaron Altman, and anchorman Tom Grunick are destined from early on to fill their positions at the network. 

Holly Hunter plays Jane Craig, a no-nonsense producer. Journalistic integrity and the adrenalin rush of news coverage are the driving forces of her life.  Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks) is a dedicated old-school television reporter, whose talent and knowledge compensate for his rather paltry on-air appeal. In a clear choice of style over journalistic substance, the network hires Tom Grunick (William Hurt).  When Grunick is groomed for the anchor position, Altman finds himself threatened not only professionally, but also in his personal relationship with Jane Craig.

The film highlights the high paced, tension-ridden lifestyle of network news, and underlines the conflicts that often ensue when professional and personal lives collide.

4. The Killing Fields (1984)

Perhaps no news story is more dangerous to cover than civil war.  The Killing Fields is set in Cambodia, where the national army is fighting the Khmer Rouge, a communist insurgency.

Based on the real life stories of New York Times correspondent, Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterson), and local Cambodian journalist, Dith Pran (Haing S Ngor), the pair covers various war atrocities with photographer, Al Rockoff (John Malkovich).  As the Khmer Rouge move into the Cambodian capital, Pran decides not to evacuate with his family, but stays behind in Phnom Penh to assist Schanberg.  Eventually Schanberg returns to the United States and is awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Pran is forced to live under the totalitarian reign of the Khmer Rouge, and we follow his plight as he tries to escape.  The movie portrays the invaluable role of the local journalist in the coverage of foreign news for the American press.  It sheds light on the tremendous risks and sacrifices of their role, often putting their life on the line to bring the story to the American public with little or no recognition of their contribution. 

3. All the President’s Men (1976)

For those too young to remember the events leading up to the resignation of President Richard M. Nixon, this movie is a “must see”. The film is based the non-fiction book written by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, which chronicles their investigation of the Watergate break-in.  Robert Redford motivated the journalistic team to write the book when he inquired about buying the movie rights to their story.  Woodward also credits Redford with shifting the narrative of the book from the events of Watergate, to the details of their investigation, and their reporting of the story. Redford convinced Warner Brothers to finance the film, agreeing to play a leading role as Bob Woodward.

The investigation begins when novice reporter Woodward is assigned to cover the indictment of the Watergate burglars. Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) wants onto the story and worms his way in with Woodward. Local news editor, Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden) makes the case to Post editor-in-chief, Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) for letting the two young journalists continue the story when it becomes of national importance.  In several ominous meetings, Bob Woodward meets his anonymous source, Deep Throat (Hal Halbrook), who gives him a clue: “Follow the money”.  Apparently the much-quoted catchphrase was a movie fabrication, neither appearing in Bernstein and Woodward’s book, nor any of the Watergate documentation. Woodward and Bernstein take Deep Throat’s advice, and follow the trail that leads eventually to the White House.

In addition to being a riveting cinematic drama, the film depicts the meticulous nature of the perhaps the most consequential piece of investigative journalism in the history of the United States.

2. Network (1976)

Long before the advent of reality shows, the movie Network dealt the dangerous consequences of mixing journalism with entertainment. In this 1976 drama written by Paddy Chayefsky and directed by Sidney Lumet, Peter Finch plays network news anchor, Howard Beale, who is being replaced due to declining ratings. When Beale announces his plan to commit suicide on live television, the network immediately fires him.   News division president, Max Schumacher (William Holden) gives Beale a chance to leave the anchor chair with dignity by apologizing on-air.  But Beale’s apology turns into an insane rant, and ironically raises the newscast’s ratings. Programming executive, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) seizes the moment, and convinces network president, Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) to let Beale continue as "the mad prophet of the airwaves".  Beale’s rating spike when he convinces his audience to open their windows and shout his mantra “I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" Christensen gains control of the news broadcast and develops “The Howard Beale Show” along with another reality-type show “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour”. Both fall under the stewardship of the entertainment division.  When Beale’s ratings decline once again, Christensen finds a “creative solution” using “The Mao Tse-Tung Hour.

At a point in time, where Walter Cronkite, Harry Reasoner and John Chancellor anchored the network news broadcasts, and the ghost of Edward R. Morrow haunted the corridors of the network news divisions, writer Paddy Chayefsky was the real prophet of the airwaves.  He foresaw a future where programmed “reality” would provide entertainment for television audiences, and sensationalized opinion would threaten the tenets of solid journalism.

1. Citizen Kane (1941)

Citizen Kane is not only my number one pick for this list; it is also one of my all-time favorite movies.  The story behind the film is as intriguing as the film itself. The movie’s co-writer, producer, director and lead actor, Orson Wells, was branded a genius early in his career.  After initial success on Broadway, and the notoriety attained from his radio broadcast of War of the Worlds (much can be said here about mixing fiction with a journalistic format), Wells was signed to a three-film deal with RKO Radio Pictures.  The contract gave him complete artistic control, unprecedented for a first-time Hollywood director.

RKO rejected Wells’ first two film proposals, and finally agreed to make a project he conceived with screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz. The screenwriter had once been friends with Marion Davies, the mistress of William Randolph Hearst, but was banished from the Hearst Castle social scene due to his excessive drinking. With revenge in mind, Mankiewicz plotted his outline as an expose’ of the newspaper giant, portraying Davies as a whining, untalented pawn in Hearst’s egomaniacal quest to control public opinion.  When Hearst caught wind of the film’s production, he tried to shut down its release, and failing that, refused advertising in his newspapers for any theater daring to run it. 

Citizen Kane is one of those great films that lifts cinema from interesting entertainment to elegant art form. A brilliant script, and innovative black and white cinematography, combines with compelling performances, and Welles artful direction, to create a classic whose themes still resonate today. With all his power, persuasion, and wealth, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Wells) longs for the something that had eluded him throughout his life.  Searching for the meaning his dying word “Rosebud”, a newspaperman’s looks for clues through interviews with Kane’s associates. Through each interviewee’s unique perspective, we learn of Kane’s attempts to use his massive media empire to manipulate public opinion, shape world events, and win the affection of the general public. Ultimately failing in his attempts, he uses his vast wealth to build a mansion that enshrines his life’s acquisitions. Xanadu becomes his “fortress of solitude”, his monument to himself.

In the end, the newspaperman’s search for the meaning of “Rosebud” comes up empty. But as any newshound can surely tell you, just because you didn’t get the story, it doesn’t mean it wasn’t there.