I don't know how many of you caught the superb "American Masters" tribute to the late Walter Cronkite on PBS last week, but it was highly illuminating.
Most of us think of "Uncle Walt" sitting behind his anchor desk at CBS, but this program also outlined just what brought him there. Throughout the Second World War, he served as a war correspondent for UPI, and appears to have seen nearly as much action as most battle-fatigued infantrymen.
What's particularly interesting is that Cronkite never forgot his early training. Over the course of his long and distinguished television career, he was hardly chained to that anchor desk. The correspondent in him saw the value of going out into the field, whether to cover the space program or the Vietnam War. And the succeeding generation of top newscasters- Rather, Jennings, and Brokaw- would all follow his lead.
We often speak of the "golden age of film", but juxtaposing Cronkite's legacy with what we're seeing now in the news business, there is no doubt that print and television journalism had its golden age too, and that sadly, we are now past it.
In the wake of this revered figure's passing, I've attempted to isolate the ten best movies about journalism. Included are serious films about war correspondents, investigative journalists, as well as pictures which portray the sensationalism which Cronkite so hated, and which represents the enduring Achilles' heel of the industry. (Note: I've intentionally excluded "Citizen Kane", as it's such an obvious choice.)
Here then are my own ten picks, in chronological order:
Foreign Correspondent (1940)- Crime reporter Johnny Jones (Joel McCrea) is renamed Huntley Haverstock by his editor and sent to Europe as a foreign correspondent. On the brink of war and teeming with espionage, the continent is full of juicy stories - and Johnny/Huntley soon finds one. Covering a peace mission, he witnesses an assassination, and is soon on to a nefarious spy ring and wide-ranging plot to aid the war-mongering Fascists. Can this Yank in treacherous waters uncover the whole mystery, and survive long enough to post the biggest scoop of his career? This unsung Hitchcock thriller is outstanding, his first to deal directly with the new war in Europe. Bolstered by a first-rate script (both James Hilton and Robert Benchley contributed dialogue) and superb cast (with the suave yet treacherous Herbert Marshall particularly memorable), "Correspondent" is consistently engrossing and entertaining, with some indelible set-pieces only this director could conjure up.
The Story Of G.I. Joe (1945)- At the height of World War II, war correspondent Ernie Pyle (Burgess Meredith) follows Company C, a platoon of infantrymen led by commander Lt. Bill Walker (Robert Mitchum), from the battlefields of North Africa to the devastated townships of Italy, getting to know each intimately. As the campaign progresses, Pyle sticks with them through the worst of circumstances and earns their respect. He, in turn, records their stories for readers at home, noting their courage, fierce loyalty to each other, and the mounting exhaustion they feel at the end of each battle. William Wellman's cinematic homage to the real-life Pyle, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, has been called one of the greatest war films of all time, and it certainly earns that distinction. The combat scenes are intense and realistic, but the film also shows the humdrum day-to-day duties and concerns of enlisted men with an almost documentary-like fidelity. Meredith lovingly evokes Pyle's humanistic and devoted attitude toward the ordinary soldiers who were his subjects, and Mitchum - in an early, star-making role - combines grit with gut-wrenching emotion. Pyle advised Wellman on this treatment, but sadly never saw the end result: He was killed in action in 1945.
Ace In The Hole (1951)- Thanks to womanizing, a drinking problem, and a defiant streak, fiery big-city journalist Charles Tatum (Kirk Douglas) has been relegated to working a local beat for a tiny New Mexico Daily, but he hasn't lost his taste for the big time. When a miner is trapped in a cave-in, Tatum savvily exploits and prolongs the man's plight in hopes of engineering his own prime-time comeback to the big-city dailies which have discarded him. Prescient, cynical, and daring for its time, Billy Wilder's acid-tongued satire on media sensationalism stars Kirk Douglas in one of his fiercest early roles. As Tatum, he's a mean-spirited multiple loser pursuing self-glorification at any expense. The luscious Jan Sterling wins points, too, for her portrayal of the trapped man's battered, unhappy wife, Lorraine, who threatens to blow the lid off Tatum's whole circus act. Wilder's astute handling of the chaotic scene around the mine - the media hordes, the gawkers and hangers-on, the souvenir and snack peddlers profiting off the situation - has much to say about our culture's lingering appetite for "human interest" tragedy.
The Parallax View (1974)- Reporter Joe Frady (Warren Beatty) is onto a terrifying, wide-ranging conspiracy in the wake of a prominent senator's assassination. He must substantiate his theory to editor Bill Rintels (a seasoned Hume Cronyn), who has reason to doubt him thanks to past irresponsible behaviors. Frady does indeed have a tiger by the tail, but will he live long enough to get his scoop? One of our top political paranoia thrillers (and owing an obvious debt to John Frankenheimer's "The Manchurian Candidate"), director Pakula uses this story to stir up close-to-the-surface fears and doubts about hidden machinations deeply embedded in our country's recent past. The result is eerily compelling. Direction, script and acting are uniformly excellent, and the film's climax is particularly intense. This subtle, intelligent thriller ranks among my favorite Beatty outings, with Paula Prentiss and Cronyn providing first-rate support.
All The President's Men (1976)- A true-life detective tale about a pair of intrepid reporters, this film follows Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they uncover a possible connection between the 1972 Watergate burglary and a White House staffer. With the blessing of executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and inside dope from Woodward's ultra-secret source, "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook), they "follow the money" all the way to the top. Although you never glimpse anyone playing Nixon, this Oscar-nominated film documents how the power of the press and determination of two young journalists brought down this president, who two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history. Faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book authored by these reporters, the movie is more exciting than fiction, and the starring triumvirate of Redford, Hoffman, and Robards merge seamlessly with their real-life counterparts.
The China Syndrome (1979)- To the consternation of her bosses, ambitious TV reporter Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) wants to get away from doing cheesy lifestyle segments and latch on to a serious story. She inadvertently finds it when she and cameraman Richard Adams (Michael Douglas) cover a day in the life of a nearby power plant, and witness some frightening irregularities. Not surprisingly, the powers-that-be don't want their cover blown on these life-threatening issues, but senior plant official Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) won't accept a cover-up, and bravely attempts to get the story out, with Kimberly's help. This tense and timely nail-biter is effective not only because director James Bridges gets all the fundamentals right, but because its explosive subject matter would soon hit home with a terrifying real-life incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania. Lemmon's Godell is a shattering portrayal, for which the actor received an Oscar nod, and Fonda is appealing and believable as a journalist who wants to be more than a pretty face. Co-star Douglas also produced.
The Year Of Living Dangerously (1982)- In 1965, Australian reporter Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) arrives in Indonesia to track the turbulent Sukarno regime. There he meets half-Chinese news photographer Billy Kwan (Linda Hunt), who quickly gets him acclimated to the people, place and politics. Billy then introduces Guy to Jill (Sigourney Weaver), a British embassy attaché, and romantic sparks fly. But Guy is there to uncover the next big story, and a country on the brink of revolution is no place to fall in love. This romantic thriller is one absorbing and atmospheric ride. Director Peter Weir heightens our awareness of impending societal disruption, keeping us continually on edge. Gibson has never been more magnetic as Guy, and the captivating Weaver exudes sensuality and mystery. Yet actress Hunt is the revelation in the gender-bending role of Billy -- it won her a richly deserved Oscar.
The Killing Fields (1984)- True story chronicling the experiences of New York Times reporter Sidney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), who, with his assistant Dith Pran (Dr. Haing S. Ngor), covers the growing unrest in Cambodia, until the 1975 take-over by Khmer Rouge guerrillas forces him to evacuate. Unfortunately, Dith Pran is less fortunate, and endures years of torture and confinement during the ensuing genocide before attempting a daring escape. Harrowing tale of man's appalling cruelty to man would seem incredible were it not true. Director Roland Joffe crafts an authentic and intelligent portrayal of individual heroism, as Pran overcomes enormous hardship and suffering to seize his chance for freedom. Both Waterston and Ngor (a non-professional actor who won an Oscar) are outstanding. A disturbing but important film.
The Insider (1999)- Based on a well-publicized true story, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), an embittered tobacco company employee, decides to blow the whistle on mammoth employer Brown & Williamson's deceptive practices. He enlists the help of Lowell Bergman, senior producer on 60 Minutes (Al Pacino), to get the story out. The process quickly becomes dangerous, however, and both men's lives are nearly destroyed. Carrying the imprimatur of reality-and courtesy of Michael Mann's tense, semi-documentary shooting style- the shocking events of the Big Tobacco scandal get brought into close proximity, holding you breathless. "The Insider" represents a cautionary tale wrapped up in a top-notch thriller. Watching the byplay between Pacino and Crowe, viewers get to witness two consummate actors at the top of their respective games. Crowe is particularly impressive playing against type.
Shattered Glass (2003)- Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) is a rising young reporter for The New Republic whose shocking stories about celebrity hackers and illegal hijinks at a Young Republican convention earn him the respect and admiration of his peers, not to mention kudos from managing editor Michael Kelly (Hank Azaria). But Glass's highly irregular reporting practices gradually come to light when new editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) steps up to replace Kelly. Director Billy Ray's "Shattered Glass" stands alongside the classic film exposé "All the President's Men" as a riveting journalistic thriller based on real-life events. Dealing with the disturbing present-day phenomenon of journalistic plagiarism, the drama's timeliness gives the film an edgy, unnerving effect. While Glass's blank, unlined face never betrays his personal motivation, the movie addresses a familiar pitfall: the insidious attraction of taking the easy way out, and the peculiar arrogance and excitement that builds when you actually get away with doing something very wrong.
For close to 2,000 more outstanding titles on DVD, visit www.bestmoviesbyfarr.com.
Also check out John's weekly DVD recommendations on www.reel13.org.
Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jfarr02