I have always been baffled by the way journalists are portrayed in movies. There are a few persistent tropes that seem to rear their ugly heads more than others, but the most annoying for me has to be the pushy reporter babe with infallible gut instincts who is hell-bent on uncovering the Pulitzer Prize winning story and will get it at all costs, damn it!
Besides the inherent sexism — ah isn’t it adorable how gutsy/spunky/plucky she is, defending her story against the lame and gutless (usually male) editor, and wow, isn’t she so freaking cute! — there is another problem. It presents this view of journalism where the reporter is a sort of sociopathic, uni-dimensional, wind-up doll with no ability to understand nuance or the big picture.
For there is no nuance or big picture for the silver screen journalist babe. There is just the story the way she sees it, and, pushy babe that she is, she is going to bloody well get it, whether her editor, the visionless dunderhead, or anybody else, likes it or not!
Well, we don’t look to the big screen for reality, God knows. And that is not my problem with it, except to say that, on occasion, this kind of portrayal attracts real people to the media hoping to fulfill their ego-driven fantasies of byline glory. (And, of course, sometimes even bad dreams do come true.)
My problem is that these portrayals are sad and boring. Which is too bad, because journalism at is best is neither of these things.
My favorite portrayal of a journalist on the silver screen has to be Al Pacino in The Insider. Keeping in mind that, though this movie is based on real events, it is still a movie, and I doubt that the real story went down anything like this. And, I admit, I also liked the movie because Al Pacino is, let’s face it, a fabulous and exciting actor, and Russell Crowe is nothing to snuff at, either, especially in this role as a conflicted whistleblower.
But I also like it because there are a few moments in it that remind me of actual working journalism!
For example, when Pacino discovers the big story that the movie is about, it is quite by accident. It happens when a tobacco industry executive, played by Crowe, who is supposed to be a paid expert on another topic, is acting cagey. Pacino picks up on his behavior, investigates further, and one thing leads to another, and voila, the hot story is revealed.
What I like about this is the interesting combination of intelligence, instinct, tact, charm, and a kind of tenacious curiosity that propels Pacino’s character forward into unearthing the story. I have seen all these traits in good journalists, usually in exciting and unpredictable combinations.
Another interesting and rarely portrayed aspect of journalism in this film is the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. Contrary to what the people who bring you the latest version of Spunky Babe Reporter believe, if you are a journalist, nobody has to talk to you. It is almost never required. So why do they? There are many reasons, and they are rarely simple or obvious.
For starters, it helps if your interviewee has some kind of rapport with you. This can happen quite naturally in various ways, but it rarely involves being perky and bossy. It also helps if the interviewee feels an inner compulsion to be heard and/or if they want to make a difference. This is something you have to sense in the interviewee, and, if neither of these things are there, it is sometimes best to find somebody else. Sometimes the interviewee is in it for reasons of self-aggrandizement, but this is rarer than you might think. There are easier ways to make a name for yourself than being interviewed in the media, which is why people sensitive to controlling their “image” often avoid it at all costs.
You can see this complex interviewer-interviewee relationship being played out in the movie when Pacino’s character subtly and deftly tries to convince Crowe’s character to go on the record, and, at great personal risk and sacrifice, blow the whistle on insider information that millions of others need to know.
Pacino’s character doesn’t whine. He doesn’t bully. He doesn’t humiliate or degrade or guilt-trip the interviewee. He’s forceful, but he understands that Crowe will only cooperate when he has it straight in his own mind, and when he is good and ready. So it is a complicated negotiation, and one that requires nuance and skill and the ability to push but never too far or too fast.
In one crucial scene where Crowe’s character is on the verge of giving up and going home, Pacino counters with a simple question that amounts to: “What’s changed?” This shrewd question galvanizes Crowe’s character at a key moment, when he realizes that, in fact, nothing has changed, that he needs to go ahead and blow the whistle after all.
Subtle. Dramatic. Powerful.
There are a few other details in this movie that I don’t know if other people would like so much, but that I appreciate quite a bit. Like the part where Pacino’s character calls his assistant in the middle of the night. She doesn’t respond with a pissed-off “why the hell are you calling me at this inconvenient hour?” but rather with a warm curiosity that goes something like: “where are you?” I have encountered this warm curiosity in good journalists many times.
Of course the movie itself is about how the towering reputation of 60 Minutes is tarnished after management capitulates to the interests of The Man — so the business of journalism itself is not exactly the hero of this story. Sad to say this jaundiced view of the profession is not entirely off the mark.
But journalism, just like the movie, still has its shining moments.