The Wipers Times 2013 Directed by Andy De Emmony. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. The dramatized true story of a dark humor newspaper produced in 1916 by the 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters (British) from trenches and bombed out buildings in Belgium and France. When a printing press was discovered in Ypres, Belgium, Captain F.J. Roberts (Ben Chaplin), who also won the Military Cross, decides that making fun of what he perceived as a Kafkaesque situation would help take the strain off his men. “I think poetry’s essential in the modern battlefield, kind of like mud.”
Aided by his right arm, Lieutenant J.H. Pearson (Julian Rhind-Tutt) and an ex-printer private, the paper put out 23 issues, each about 12 pages with its title changing in accordance with camp location: The “New Church” Times, The Somme-Times…None of the writers were professionals, some contributed under pseudonyms such as P.B.I. (Poor Bloody Infantry) and Belary Helloc (take off on Hilaire Belloc). There were poems, jokes, lampoons, even fake advertising like a combination umbrella and wire cutter. Wherever deployed, the press was dragged along.
Examples: The world wasn’t made in a day,/And Eve didn’t ride on a bus,/But most of the world’s in a sandbag,/The rest of it’s plastered on us…Lonely President wishes correspond with anyone. /Can write charming note. Has corresponded with most of the crowned heads of Europe./ Write “Dignitas,” Washington, U.S.A…Men- Do you suffer from optimism and fail to recognize the telltale signs?!…The Drink Habit: If you don’t have one, we can help develop it in three days.
Bookended by actual WWI footage, we watch soldiers in trenches and rubble without seeing vast battlefields or anyone killed. As the paper gains popularity and circulation, some officers are offended, but Commander, General Mitford (Michael Palin,) is sympathetic and supportive. The film intermittently uses fantasy vaudeville scenes on a small torch-lit stage (think Cabaret) to show paper content. Terrific story. Well produced. Experienced horror might’ve offered some balance. These men, in fact, saw much of the worst of it. Free with Amazon Prime.
The Front Page 1931 Based on the Broadway play by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. Directed by Lewis Milestone. A pre-code screwball comedy. Hildebrand “Hildy” Johnson (Pat O’Brien) is attracted to news like a truffle pig but about to get married and leave the paper. Editor, Walter Burns (Adolphe Menjou), will do anything to keep his star reporter focused and in the game. The execution of murderer Earl Williams (George E. Stone) looks rote until he escapes. Hildy agrees to cover one last story.
At a chaotic courthouse, the reporter inadvertently finds himself in a room with Williams. It turns out the so-called criminal is an innocent, bumbling leftist and that the mayor and sheriff are corrupt. Hildy gets involved. With Edward Everett Horton, Walter Catlett. Free with Amazon Prime.
His Girl Friday 1940 Directed by Howard Hawks. Here Hildy Johnson is a woman (Rosalind Russell) about to quit and marry insurance salesman Bruce Baldwin (Ralph Bellamy). Editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant), also her ex-husband, is still in love with Hildy. He goads her into covering an execution that becomes an escape (see above), confident she’ll get drawn back in to the business. Needless to say, the couple reunite – on piqued terms. During auditions, Hawkes’ secretary read the role of Hildy giving him the idea to cast a woman. Free with Amazon Prime.
AND The Front Page 1974 Directed by Billy Wilder. With Jack Lemmon as Hildy Johnson, Susan Sarandon as his intended Peggy Grant, and Walter Matthau as Editor Walter Burns. Rent on Netflix.
All the President’s Men 1976 Based on the nonfiction book by investigative reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Directed by Alan J. Pakula. If you generationally missed this one, perhaps now is the time. A well drawn thriller depicting background and exposure of the Watergate Scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. Complex, but not difficult to follow. Lies and clandestine criminal activity by government representatives who seem like pikers compared to what we face today.
Robert Redford secured the rights. Multiple screenplay versions were written and disputed by impassioned filmmakers. With Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman; Martin Balsam, Hal Holbrook, Jason Robards, Jane Alexander. Free with Amazon Prime.
Absence of Malice 1981 Directed by Sydney Pollack. Acting as a pawn to the city’s Justice Department, ambitious Miami reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) prints an article implying that liquor wholesaler Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), the son of a deceased crime boss, might’ve had something to do with the disappearance of union head, Joey Diaz. The Department assumes family connection means he must know something. It’s fishing. In fact. Michael is not only innocent but has a solid alibi involving a protected friend. His life and business are wrecked by innuendo. The friend commits suicide.
Michael Gallagher’s revenge plan draws in government, police and the newspaper. He and Megan embark on a relationship. She tries to help, but gets in over her head. A look at the malleability of laws and ethics and the power of the press. Response was unanimous that Megan would never have gotten away with what she did, but otherwise writing and questioning were solid. With Melinda Dillon, Wilfred Brimley, and Bob Balaban.
“The title refers to the legal definition of one of the requirements of proof against libel defamation and is used in journalism classes to illustrate the conflict between disclosing damaging personal information and the public’s right to know.” Free with Amazon Prime.
Spotlight 2015 Based on a series of stories by the Spotlight team (the oldest continuously operating newspaper journalist investigative unit in the United States) that earned The Boston Globe the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Exposure of religious and political corruption that for years hid systematic sexual abuse of Boston area children by Catholic priests. Presented in a balanced fashion, its script shows intimidation, fear, disbelief, quid pro quo, and trauma on both sides. Facts and lack of appropriate consequences will make your toes curl.
The film depicts events leading up to publication of the Spotlight team’s first article, whereas it actually continued publishing follow-up reports for nearly two years afterwards. A terrific ensemble cast including, in part, Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James. Free with Amazon Prime.
The Post 2017 Produced and directed by Steven Spielberg. The film focuses on 1971 attempts by The Washington Post to publish The Pentagon Papers (classified documents regarding this country’s 20-year involvement in the Vietnam War and earlier in French Indochina). While doing so, it portrays rare patrimony headed by Katherine Graham (Meryl Streep) the first female publisher of a major newspaper, methods by which news finds its way to the public, ethical and legal considerations. Names are named.
When The White house retaliated, The Post and Times jointly appeared before the Supreme Court to plead their First Amendment constitutional rights – and won. President Nixon barred The Post from The White House (sound familiar?) and Watergate happened. Taut and effective. Members of The Times involved in the case disputed what they felt was script minimization of their role. With a solid cast including, in part, Tom Hanks, Sarah Paulson, Tracy Letts, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Matthew Rhys. Free with Amazon Prime.
Breslin & Hamill: Deadline Artists 2019 Directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block, Steve McCarthy. Two of the most celebrated journalists of the 20th century with different iconoclastic styles, but dogged commitment to both journalism and New York City are profiled separately and together with a wealth of archival material. The men also converse (this was shot before Breslin died in 2017).
Linear and cohesive, we get an excellent idea of background, personality, trajectory, high points of accomplishment, and crossover experience as well as bar anecdotes and a fisheye view of pre-technilogical journalism. Highly recommended. HBO Trial with Prime.
Top photo: Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee in The Post
Photo Credit: Niko Tavernise, courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox