The big story

As real world events see traditional British journalism changing dramatically, we look at journalists in the movies.

by Jennie Kermode

As small screen viewers are transfixed by revelations about corruption in British journalism, it's worth taking a look at the big screen to see how journalists have provided the focus for some fantastic stories. From plucky heroines armed only with notebooks to ruthless editors bent on destroying their rivals, they've carried readers with them into the thick of the action, often unravelling extensive conspiracies as they go.

Though in real life things tend to be more complicated, in the movies journalists break down into three basic types. There are the villains, who are generally editors with absurd amounts of power; the heroes, out to get to the truth no matter what; and, on occasion, sleazy tabloid hacks – often the most interesting characters but usually relegated to supporting roles. Stephen Lang's wonderfully lurid turn in Manhunter (a role later reprised by Philip Seymour Hoffman in Red Dragon) is a fantastic example of the latter. Perhaps more apposite just now, however, is Hayden Christensen's turn in Shattered Glass, based on the true story of an ambitious young journalist who took a short cut to success by fabricating much of his work.

One of the favourite themes of dramas about journalism is corruption – the appeal that media power can hold and the effect it can have on people. An early entry in this canon was Sweet Smell Of Success, in which Tony Curtis plays the down-on-his-luck press agent drawn into ruining an enemy of Burt Lancaster's domineering entertainment columnist. An unusually ugly role for Curtis, and one he embraces with gusto, it sees Lancaster at his most formidable and there are no happy endings to be found. Yet doubtless the most famous cinematic tale of this type is the legendary Citizen Kane, with Orson Welles directing and starring as the titular newspaper tycoon whose monstrous rise to power ultimately leaves him isolated at the top. The film was scandalous when first released in 1941, not least because of its protagonist's close resemblance to real life tycoon William Randolph Hearst, who has been openly depicted in numerous films. Perhaps most interesting among these, for the sympathy it shows him, is 2001's The Cat's Meow, in which he is played by Edward Herrmann and seems curiously irrelevant at the centre of his own scandal.

A little further down the food chain are influential journalists portrayed as heroes. These, too, are often based on real people, such as British radio journalist David Frost, played by Michael Sheen opposite Frank Langella in Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon. A dramatisation of the famous exchanges that led to the downfall of the president, the film celebrates journalism at the peak of its political influence. Nixon's demise is also the subject of All The President's Men, which centres on the Deep Throat revelations. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play the reporters investigating a trail that leads all the way to the top. And those who find these films appealing will also enjoy Good Night, And Good Luck, in which David Strathairn and George Clooney star as a CBS reporter and producer who take on the might of Senator Joseph McCarthy in the midst of America's anti-Communist panic, another true story.

Sometimes crusading journalism isn't that straightforward. There have been many crime dramas featuring journalists in jeopardy, from jungle horror Cut And Run to whimsical fantasy Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow, but few come close to the impact of David Fincher's Zodiac, in which the danger is as much moral as physical. Structured around a story to which viewers know there can be no resolution, the film explores the obsessiveness that keeps people working on lost causes, with Robert Downey Junior's crime reporter drinking himself to destruction as Jake Gyllenhaal's cartoonist loses touch with everything else that mattered in his life. Don't let it suck you in too, though – the FBI still have one coded message from the titular serial killer that is yet to be solved.

More recently, the Swedish Millennium films have seen Michael Nyqvist's feature writer battling to solve a series of complex conspiracies. Based on books written by a journalist, these films have rather more to say about the background and internal politics of the industry than most, and are interesting in that they focus on a small independent publication rather than a powerful conglomerate. With Fincher busy directing remakes, the story will soon reach a wider audience.

If none of these films whet your appetite, there are, of course, plenty of great documentaries about the industry. Probably most pertinent at present are Starsuckers – which looks at how easily tabloids can be persuaded to run fabricated celebrity stories – and the self-explanatory Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War On Journalism. Page One: Inside The New York Times provides a vivid view of what it's like to work for a major newspaper, whilst anyone who thinks fashion journalism is suitable for more sensitive types should check out The September Issue. It's a cut-throat business but it leads to some sharp entertainment – don't miss your copy.

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