There’s a long history of journalists on the silver screen, from classics “Citizen Kane,” and “All the King’s Men,” to satires such as “Network,” to broader comedies such as “Groundhog Day,” and “Bruce Almighty.” Rarer are depictions of newshounds as neither heroes nor empty suits.
In the past year, three films have offered takes on the profession that alternately recreate or subvert these archetypes, or do away with them entirely: critic’s darling “Birdman,” edgy “Nightcrawler” and the farcical “Interview.” How does each cast the media of today?
A journalist abroad
The goofiest and most simplistic of the crop, “The Interview,” holds journalism in the highest esteem. True, stars Seth Rogen and James Franco play a lowly entertainment news team that makes its nut on celebrity gossip. In two early cameos, Eminem and Rob Lowe come out as gay and bald, respectively, on their talk show. But show-runner Aaron Rapoport (Rogen)’s dissatisfaction with this state of affairs is what pushes him, and his host, Dave Skylark (Franco), to take on an interview with Kim Jung-un.
Early on, Rapoport runs into an old Columbia Journalism School peer, now a “60 Minutes” employee, who jokes that he could never make it in the world of real news. His pride is wounded. Skylark also desires professional esteem. So this respect for legitimate journalism is actually the impetus for the film’s absurd events.
Late in the plot, when the bumbling stars are deep in North Korea and have ditched the CIA’s assassination plan, they instead decide to use Skylark’s emotional manipulation skills – those same that bring celebs to tears in one-on-ones – to make Kim Jung-un cry in front of his nation. They believe the media broadcast would have a truly revolutionary power. It would pull back the curtain on the supposed superhuman leader, instead of merely leading to another succession, as his assassination would.
This is faith in journalism as world-shaker, as mightier than the sword (and of course, the film had serious real-world repercussions in the Sony email hack and subsequent pull from theaters). While “The Interview” might seem to mock today’s vapid media, there is actually a kind of golden-age reverence below the surface.
Critically panned, “The Interview” actually bears some similarities to the lauded “Birdman.” Both feature popular stars low on credibility who seek legitimacy by impressing prestige media.
A journalist on Broadway
This year’s Academy Award winner for Best Picture, “Birdman,” looks at the conflicted, symbiotic relationship between the entertainment industry and the press. At the center of it, Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former comic book movie star, attempts to stage a career revival. He stars in, directs and produces his own Broadway adaption of a Raymond Carver work. His fate lies with one reviewer, the New York Times’ prickly theater critic, who reviles what he represents. He doesn’t care much for critics, either.
In a telling detail, his dressing room mirror bears a notecard with the quote, “A thing is a thing not what is said of that thing [sic].”
But Thompson is in search of validation, and thinks it must come from the old-guard media. He checks the paper (the print version, no less) for reviews after each preview and ultimately, opening night. He gets in a fistfight with his preening co-star Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) who usurps his front page early in the film.
The media do not come off too well here. The Times critic threatens to kill his play before she’s even seen it. Likewise, at an early press conference held in Thompson’s dressing room, one scribe inquires if a ludicrous rumor – that he injects pig semen in his face – is true. They care little about the content of his production or its performances.
There are other sources of hollow validation, though, as the film reveals. Thompson’s daughter/assistant Sam, played by Emma Stone, gives the actors a younger outsider’s view. In one notable scene, Thompson gets locked out of the theater in his underwear during a performance and has to hightail back to the front entrance though throngs of New York pedestrians. Later, his daughter tells him his jaunt is trending on Twitter, gaining 350,000 views in under an hour. “Believe it or not, this is power,” she tells him. She realizes new media can undercut the gatekeeping role of old.
But the very next scene? Thompson has a nasty confrontation with the Times critic in a bar. “I’m gonna destroy your play,” she growls. “This is the theater. You don’t get to come in here and write, direct and star in your own propaganda piece without coming through me first.” She might as well have roared, “I am the gatekeeper.”
Reading her notepad, he says her criticisms are “just labels” – there’s nothing about technique or intention, no substance at all. “Just a bunch of crappy opinions.”
Thompson and his co-stars are wrapped up in the public’s adoration, though. While their future may hinge on the old, new media can instantly gratify them. In reference to a sort of excitement-induced wardrobe malfunction, Shiner shoots back at Thompson, mid-fight: “I’m a nobody? My massive hard-on got 50,000 views.”
“Birdman” is fascinated with the real-time interaction, or distraction, of social media in the characters’ lives. While its actors-playing-actors are somewhat self-aware of their adulation seeking – Shiner tells Thompson “popularity is the slutty little cousin of prestige, my friend” – here validation is crunched down to numbers. Obsessed with enumeration, “Birdman” seems to be critiquing both the media’s and the public’s infatuation with views, shares and likes.
A broadside against journalists?
“Nightcrawler” is the most sustained look at the news media of the three, taking “If it bleeds, it leads” to an insane length. It’s a reflection on the sometimes ghoulish focus of local news – that is, its devotion to crime, accidents and fires. The audience’s desire for disaster is met by a perfect sociopath, Jake Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom.
Rather than seeking prestige, as is the case with Skylark and Thompson, he just wants a few dollars in his pocket. Nightcrawling, or stringing after police scanner incidents with camera in tow, is his means to that end.
Not only is he focused on the grisly aspects of news – where, after all, he’s just responding to the wants of the system, and his news director – he is entirely amoral about attaining sensational video.
Bloom enters crime scene homes, moves injured bodies for better framing and withholds critical information from police to stage a shot of the murderers’ apprehension-turned-shootout and car chase. He literally has blood on his hands.
He is responding to the advice of his news director, Nina Romina (Renee Russo). “Think of our newscast as a screaming woman running down the street with her throat cut,” she tells him. “I’m a very quick learner,” he says at one point. So Bloom is quickly able to turn in the highest shock-value video in all of L.A. Romina in turn is responding to the marketplace. Her news station is last in ratings, and carnage, particularly brown-on-white crime, is a hit with the suburban audience.
There are only two characters with scruples in the film. One is a member of the news team, token producer Frank Kruse (Kevin Rahm) who repeatedly raises ethical objections to running Bloom’s footage. The other is Rick (Riz Ahmed), the poor young man Bloom recruits to be his “intern.” Rick eventually confronts Bloom about his inhumane practices.
But Bloom is nothing but successful. His determined, affectless approach yields ever-greater results. In the end, he introduces several new “interns” to his expanded news-gathering production company.
Spouting aphorisms about hard work to anyone who will listen, Bloom’s deeds are at times soundtracked by a subtly upbeat, inspirational score. The film is perhaps the darkest of comedies, then, if the viewer so chooses. It is also a compelling but sickening portrait of gratuitously graphic broadcast news, a satire mixing elements of “Wolf of Wall Street” and “Network.”
There’s little more to the film’s statement. We know tabloid journalism is grotesque, and that for-profit news leads to a perversion of the product. But “Nightcrawler” delves the depths of rubbernecking and ladder climbing to a new extreme. And when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.
Hollywood still casts the media in powerful roles, even while satirizing their tabloidization. Journalists in film are capable of bringing down regimes and crushing Broadway shows single-handedly. But changes to the news environment have not gone unnoticed. Social media competes side-by-side with the New York Times. It’s no coincidence sensationalism has seeped back on-screen, where celebrity gossip and gory crime often displace serious issues and ethics are seen as quaint.
While still incorporating our classic images of journalists, both heroes and fools, scriptwriters have updated Hollywood’s mirror to more accurately reflect today’s fragmented and sometimes troubling media landscape.