Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Scandalous: The Untold Story Of The National Enquirer
"Much of what it has to say is obvious enough once the facts are in order but it still serves as an important contributor to broader conversations about the cultural shift we have witnessed in recent decades." | Photo: Magnolia Pictures

'Sex, drugs & UFOs!' as the tagline for this film says - at the end of the 20th Century the National Enquirer promised all the absurdities of under-educated, over-inflated US popular culture in one trashy package, complete with endless stories attacking celebrities whom most of us outside the country had never heard of but whose mask-like 'natural' make-up, glaring teeth and head-swallowing hairdos made them look like aliens themselves. It was the news equivalent of a twinkie, all high fructose corn syrup and absolutely no nutritional value. It never occurred to us to take it seriously - but look at where we are today.

Of course, twinkies didn't rain down from Heaven - creating something this empty and yet this addictive takes skill. Mark Landsman's film sets out to detail the history of the notorious publication whilst asking questions about what makes it tick, exploring the cost of all that junk news and looking at its impact on individuals it featured and wider society. This is a vast project which really requires more than 97 minutes. The documentary starts out well and gradually becomes compressed like the handwriting of a teenager trying to fit everything on one line. Much of what it has to say is obvious enough once the facts are in order but it still serves as an important contributor to broader conversations about the cultural shift we have witnessed in recent decades.

It begins not with the paper's origins in 1926 - as the New York Evening Enquirer - but with its purchase 26 years later by Generoso Pope Jr, and its subsequent rebranding, including a change in name and format. Inspired by the attention-grabbing effect of actual car crashes, Pope initially ran it as a journal of true horror stories, significantly boosting its circulation, but then realised that he could attract an even larger readership by shifting its principal focus to celebrities. At around the same time he made the deals necessary to sell it in supermarkets - the first time any US paper had done this - and in doing so found the formula that would see it enjoy unprecedented success over the next few decades.

The term 'success', of course, applies when one considers it purely in terms of circulation. From the outset there were protests at its moral failings. Landsman introduces this aspect of the story gently, presenting an amusing story about the complications involved in it getting an exclusive picture of Elvis Presley in his coffin without any input from those who had loved the singer. Later, he does make room for feedback on the intrusive and directly exploitative aspects of the paper's reporting but most of this is generic - whether for moral or legal reasons, Landsman has chosen not to expound on many specific stories of this type. What we do get is a handful of those that have lingered in the public imagination, such as the massively influential (and never disproven) claim that Gary Hart was having an extramarital affair. There's also a section on how Donald Trump leaked information on other people's private lives and his own, using the paper to boost his profile; and a look at why Arnold Schwarzenegger was immune to Enquirer attacks for many years.

Mixed in with all this is a reflection on the real journalistic skills that formed the backbone of the paper and, together with an impressive set of lawyers, kept it from losing all its income to compensation suits. Its key role in the OJ Simpson case is celebrated by various of its former writers. These interviewees speak in the past tense, however; nobody pretends that the Enquirer is what it used to be. Its sale to David J Pecker and its subsequent partisanship bring the story to a close and illustrate how what may have seemed like harmless fun - a simple surrender to the pre-existing lust for gossip among bored Midwestern housewives - revealed itself as a very different beast once it was harnessed in pursuit of power.

Tying the paper's innovations and its ultimate decline to the displacement of authoritative journalism by clickbait, Landsman has created a fluffy, playful tease of a film with a dark heart. A parade of spinning headlines draws the eye; what lies beneath them might be more meaningful than you thought.

Reviewed on: 13 Nov 2019
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A portrait of the National Enquirer.

Director: Mark Landsman

Year: 2019

Runtime: 96 minutes

Country: US


DOC NYC 2019

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