If Hollywood is to be believed, the Internet has not eroded the need for newspaper or television journalists.
Old-school reporters are apparently more heroic now than ever, and not just the ones who transform into superheroes after a quick trip to the phone booth.
Journalists — and the thorny impact of journalism — can be found at the center of several new films:
▪ Director James Vanderbilt’s “Truth” (which opened Friday) details the assailed “60 Minutes” report questioning then-President George W. Bush’s military service, which led to the resignation of anchor Dan Rather — serving as journalism’s antihero here — and firing of other CBS News staffers.
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▪ Thomas McCarthy’s “Spotlight” (which opens in some cities Friday and Nov. 20 in Kansas City) examines how the Boston Globe blew open the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child molestation; it might be a front-runner for the best picture Academy Award.
▪ Stephen Frears’ “The Program” (no KC date yet) concerns an Irish sports journalist pursuing allegations of doping by cyclist Lance Armstrong.
▪ Oliver Stone’s “Snowden” tells the story of the controversial National Security Agency contractor (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) who leaked classified documents to newspapers, which published them. (The film wasn’t completed in time for its original Christmas opening and was postponed to May.)
“One of the things that makes journalism stories a genre filmmakers go back to is they contain a lot of the qualities of great storytelling,” “Truth” producer Brad Fischer said in a recent phone interview. “You have people with very ambitious goals who often have to climb mountains to achieve them. That’s the stuff of real drama.”
Finding the “Truth”
“Truth” focuses on Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), a CBS producer best known for breaking the Abu Ghraib prison scandal. In 2004, she and the esteemed Rather (Robert Redford) reported that Bush had received preferential treatment from the Texas Air National Guard. But the documents at the core of their argument were soon called into question, resulting in an internal inquiry that seriously damaged the credibility of CBS News.
“We didn’t call the movie ‘Truth’ because this is the objective truth. It’s not a documentary,” Fischer says. “The title really goes to the pursuit of truth — what sometimes gets in the way of that and what the consequences are of asking questions when the truth hasn’t come to light.”
Like many filmmakers, Fischer was primarily influenced by “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 Watergate exposé that also co-starred Redford, which he calls “one of the great investigative films of all time.”
“In some ways, ‘All the President’s Men’ is a story about how journalism can triumph. ‘Truth’ shows the vulnerability of journalism, how it can be torn down from a lot of different angles and for a lot of different reasons.”
The new movie is based on Mapes’ book “Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power.” Fischer admits to an unusual dynamic when real-life individuals and the actors who play them collaborate.
“It’s always remarkable to me when someone is OK with Hollywood taking a story of their life and putting it on the big screen,” says Fischer, who previously teamed with writer/producer Vanderbilt on 2007’s “Zodiac.” That effort also adapted the tale of a real-life newsman (a political cartoonist, actually) pursuing a still-unsolved murder mystery.
“As is the case here, this is not the most exciting memory for many of the people involved in this. For Mary and Dan, this is probably the darkest point in their professional lives,” he says.
CBS has said the film distorts the truth, but Rather told The Washington Post that it is “the most accurate thing put on the big screen about how investigative reporting works.”
Fischer was in the room with Mapes when she first watched the finished film. He remembers she held Vanderbilt’s hand for the entire screening.
“It probably provided some degree of closure for her,” he says.
Shining a “Spotlight”
The forthcoming “Spotlight” may also bring some closure. The docudrama focuses on the Boston Globe news staff (featuring a cast that includes Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams) who generated a series of Pulitzer Prize-winning articles in 2002 that investigated the Catholic Church’s sex abuse conspiracy.
The movie’s tagline: “Break the story. Break the silence.”
“I’ve thought of it as one of the most important stories of our time,” says Diana Jean Schemo, a veteran of The New York Times and The Baltimore Sun who began reporting on the issue in the 1980s. “It took a lot of courage and cutting loose from the comfort zones of all the people involved to take a very hard look at the church. It’s a fantastic example of journalism’s power for righting wrongs and for representing the powerless.”
Schemo selected “Spotlight” as the opening night headliner of her Investigative Film Festival. She launched the Washington, D.C., event in September after realizing that fact-finding journalism was being drowned out by truncated new media.
“We’re in an age where people hate journalists,” she says. “I don’t think they hate what we do; sometimes they hate how we do it. They hate tabloids. They hate stenography journalism. However, people value journalism that requires some thinking and digging. But they need to know what it is and why it matters. That’s why I think a movie like ‘Spotlight’ can elevate the conversation.”
Schemo also serves as executive editor of 100Reporters, a news organization she started four years ago to unite colleagues to expose corruption across the globe. She believes in-depth reporting has suffered in the last decade, both financially and in the laws that protect journalists.
Fortunately, Hollywood has come to the rescue, narratively speaking.
“All of these filmmakers who aren’t really investigative reporters and don’t see themselves that way are making movies that are investigative,” she says. “Audiences may never read a 5,000-word investigative piece. But whatever door or window they may use, if they can get into this house of journalism, that’s wonderful.”
When curating entries to fill the eight slots at the Investigative Film Festival, Schemo looked for strong characters and story.
“Investigative journalism is in a state of transition, and states of transition are inherently interesting,” she says. “To me, the mystery is why there haven’t been even more great films about journalism.”
Like “Spotlight,” the recent release “Black Mass” also hatched from the meticulous work of Boston Globe reporters.
Dick Lehr and Gerard O’Neill, whose book “Black Mass: Whitey Bulger, the FBI, and a Devil’s Deal” inspired the feature, spent years uncovering the details of the unholy alliance between fugitive mobster Bulger and the Feds. Then Hollywood decided to adapt it as a starring vehicle for Johnny Depp.
How much easier is it for filmmakers when the dicey source material is so thoroughly researched and scrutinized by the time it reaches them?
“It makes all the difference in the world,” says Mark Mallouk, writer/producer of “Black Mass.”
The Kansas City-area native and University of Kansas graduate took full advantage of groundwork laid by the newspaper.
“Everything in those articles was fact-checked and sourced by the Boston Globe’s rigorous standards in the name of accuracy, plus they didn’t want to be sued for libel,” Mallouk says. “HarperCollins, the publishers of the book, wouldn’t publish a word without sending it through their own verification process. By the time ‘Black Mass’ landed in my hands, I knew anything in the book could go in the screenplay.”
The journalists made themselves readily available to answer any questions while Mallouk wrote. He says the subject matter remained important to them, no matter the medium.
Fischer adds, “When you’re putting a film together, asking questions and trying to get to the emotional truth, there is some overlap between filmmaking and journalism.”
The “Truth” producer notes how people may just skim over a headline and not even read the story. But a movie can secure two hours of a viewer’s time if it can deliver the fascination and/or intrinsic obsessiveness of journalists chasing down a story.
Toward the end of “Truth,” researcher Mike Smith (Topher Grace) asks Redford’s Rather about his reasons for choosing the profession:
Smith: “Why did you get into journalism?”
Smith: “That’s it?”
Rather: “That’s everything.”
As long as journalists probe scandals, outrages and atrocities, Hollywood will be watching.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”