Editor’s pick: 5 great journalism films

Authored by Ray Nothstine

Spotlight (2015)

“Spotlight” is easily one of the best films on investigative journalism. It chronicles the story of The Boston Globe’s investigation into the Roman Catholic clergy sexual abuse scandal that occurred over multiple decades within the Boston Archdiocese. The Globe’s coverage resulted in being awarded the 2003 Pulitzer Prize and the film deservingly won the Oscar for Best Picture in 2016.

“Spotlight” deftly highlights the importance of professional journalists as watchdogs and the work they do to hold power structures accountable. In this instance, their reporting was highly beneficial to protecting the most vulnerable in our midst – mainly children from the crimes and cover-up of sexual predators.

Michael Keaton is exceptional in his portrayal of Boston Globe Spotlight Editor Walter Robinson. All the acting in the film shines. Even the more melodramatic scenes feel justified.

I’m not usually somebody who watches films multiple times, but I’ve seen “Spotlight” more than once and will likely watch it again. The ending is quite moving, and it remains a powerful reminder that the Fourth Estate can and should serve the common good.

The Killing Fields (1984)

“The Killing Fields” title refers to the physical locations where more than 1,000,000 Cambodians were starved or slaughtered by the Marxist Khmer Rouge regime that ascended to power after the Cambodian Civil War during the 1970s.

The British film depicts the life and work of Cambodian journalist Dith Pran and New York Times Correspondent Sydney Schanberg. The two partnered to cover the violent genocide, revolution, and fall of Phnom Penh, where eventually they were forced to take refuge in the French embassy.

I appreciate the depiction of Schanberg and Pran’s raw courage to stay and cover the story in such difficult and dangerous circumstances. Schanberg returned to New York and Pran became a prisoner of the Khmer Rouge. Thankfully, Pran eventually reunites with Schanberg and became a photographer for The New York Times.

In his first acting role, Haing S. Ngor won the best supporting actor for his portrayal of Pran.

The film shines with its focus on the brutality and evils of the Khmer Rouge. Pol Pot, the former communist dictator of Cambodia, is not talked about enough anymore. “The Killing Fields” is a story that should be continually remembered by Western audiences.

State of Play (2009)

This is the one film on the list that is not based on a true story or actual events. Although it’s not an entirely unbelievable scenario given the state of Washington’s political corruption. Still, it’s a fair question to ask if ineptitude or corruption is the bigger winner in Washington political culture.

The storyline of the conspiracy feels a little rushed and complex, but on the journalism side of “State of Play” deals substantially with the decay of print media and the rise of new media trends like blogging and sensationalized or infotainment-based news. You can easily admire Russell Crowe’s character as a homage to old-school journalism and newspaper ethics.

I appreciate the sentimentality of the film and championing a reporter who is willing to sacrifice everything to uncover the truth and print it for the masses. Of course that type of market requires serious readers.

Shattered Glass (2003)

Like any decent editor, I find myself disgusted when a writer plagiarizes content or outright lies in print. “Shattered Glass” covers the 1990s New Republic scandal where Stephen Glass fabricated or greatly exaggerated most of the stories he wrote for the publication. Some in-depth reports such as “Hack Heaven” were completely made up. Forbes, led by the reporting of Adam Penenberg, is the publication that discovered the completely falsified hacker story penned by Glass.

Glass’s wild ambition, narcissism, and downfall are all mesmerizing in the film.

The ends that Glass takes to cover up his lies reaches the level of pathological art, and frankly it’s uncomfortable to watch on the screen. It reveals the fakery and inauthentic lengths a person can go for attention grabbing headlines.

The integrity of the then newly minted New Republic Editor Charles Lane stands out in the film. Lane oversaw the work of Glass when he was at the New Republic.

“He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed it all as fact, just because we found him entertaining. It’s indefensible,” says Lane’s character in the film.

Glass appears to be legitimately remorseful now over the havoc he wreaked at the magazine. He graduated from law school but was denied admission to both the New York and California Bar because of his fabricated stories. He now works as a paralegal.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Probably no journalism film list is complete without “All the President’s Men.” The pacing and meticulous reporting of the Watergate break-in coverup works well for film.

I’ve never been a huge Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman fan, but they are a complimentary duo in the film portraying Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. “All the Presidents Men” shines by showing how the Washington Post went after the most powerful office in the world – the president of the United States. If nothing else, it’s an interesting contrast to a lot of professional reporting today that too often carries the water or acts as a shield for the White House or other like-minded ideological powers and institutions.

“Deep Throat,” later revealed to be Mark Felt of the FBI in 2005, is played by Hal Halbrook. The parking garage scenes with Halbrook and the Washington Post reporters are iconic. And “follow the money,” a catchphrase made famous by the film, is now an entrenched part of the American political lexicon.

Ray Nothstine is the Future of Freedom Fellow at the State Policy Network and a senior editor and writer. He manages American Habits.

Authored by:Ray Nothstine


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