Hollywood tells many tales of the news business: the doe-eyed music reporter trying to get the big story in Almost Famous, the eager television reporter who has a lot to learn in Up Close and Personal, and the disgruntled news anchor who's fired from his job in Network.
Films like these help to document — and sometimes poke fun at — the news business and those involved with it. NPR's Neal Conan and TOTN's favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, discuss their favorite movies about the news business and what those films reveal about the industry and the people who make careers in it.
Tell us: What's your favorite movie about journalism?
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
The drama of the deadline, the power of the press, the dough-eyed cub reporter, the steely-eyed anchorman: The news business was made for Hollywood.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ACE IN THE HOLE")
KIRK DOUGLAS: (as Chuck Tatum) I know newspapers backward, forward and sideways. I can write them, edit them, print them, wrap them and sell them.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Don't need anybody right now.
DOUGLAS: (as Chuck Tatum) I can handle big news and little news. And if there's no news, I'll go out and bite a dog.
CONAN: Kirk Douglas in "Ace in the Hole." What's your favorite movie about the news business? Give us a call: 800-989-8255. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. TALK OF THE NATION's favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joins us here in Studio 3A to talk about these films and what they say about the news business.
Hi, Murray. Welcome back.
MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: It's good to be back, Neal, as always.
CONAN: And this is a rich category.
HORWITZ: It really is. First of all, I want to - I loved your adjectives. You didn't you hard-boiled however.
CONAN: Well, that's for noir. Come on.
HORWITZ: That's right. It's true. But I was thinking about: Why is it so rich? I mean, and it occurred to me that - because this is a category in which there are a lot of subcategories, and you put your finger right on it. That's how the news business is pictured, but also how the news business functions.
Not only is it a terrific theme and setting for a movie. I mean, it's exciting. It's romantic. It's got deadlines, as you pointed out. And often, really important things hang in the balance. But it's also become even better in our time because the world has become a more media-saturated place and journalists themselves - well, I'll use the expression lightly, because in the movies, sometimes they're hacks, sometimes they're reporters. But people in the journalism business have become big stars. So...
CONAN: And it's also a way - the movies like to show you're on the inside, somehow reporters are on the inside, or pulling back the curtain.
HORWITZ: Right. Everybody likes to look behind the curtain, and especially at a profession which has a reputation, and sometimes, in fact in my experience, it's been a little seedy, you know.
CONAN: Anybody here?
HORWITZ: Not at NPR, no.
CONAN: OK. All right.
HORWITZ: No, no, no, no.
CONAN: All right.
HORWITZ: This is what is used to be written in ink, you know. But that's the first category of movies, the kind of inside movies about journalism. So you have things like, you know, "Broadcast News" and "Network."
But then there are other categories, because reporters and TV and radio news and newspapers and reporters and anchors in newsrooms are all very valuable to screenwriters and directors of all kinds of movies. Sometimes journalism functions as a catalyst, like in "Gentlemen's Agreement," or really, "Citizen Kane."
CONAN: Or "Citizen Kane." Yeah.
HORWITZ: And then there are movies about the crusading journalist, as you may know, "All the President's Men," "Deadline - U.S.A." And finally, movies in which the journalist becomes caught in the political intrigue, like "Foreign Correspondent" or "The China Syndrome." And there are probably other ones that I haven't been able to categorize.
CONAN: Oh, there are so many. There is a separate category which we are not going to consider, in which - disguised as a mild-mannered reporter from a Metropolitan Daily.
HORWITZ: Spider-Man, Superman, you know, yeah, it really functions that way. One of my favorite portrayals of the press in which they're literally a group of clowns, physical comedians, is in "The Right Stuff," where they're just (unintelligible).
CONAN: Absolutely. Jeff Goldblum. Yeah, absolutely. 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. We want to hear your nominee for best movie about the news business. We're going to start with Chris, and Chris with us from Kamuela, in Hawaii. Am I pronouncing that anywhere close to right?
CHRIS: You are correct, sir.
CONAN: Oh, thank you.
HORWITZ: You've got to practice your vowels if you're going to take the (unintelligible).
CHRIS: Yes, yes, Kamuela. That is Samuel in Hawaiian.
HORWITZ: Oh. Interesting.
CONAN: OK. Well, what's your...
CONAN: What's you nominee?
CHRIS: You mentioned it already. It would be "Network."
CONAN: Are you mad as hell, and not going to take it anymore?
CHRIS: Well, I'm past that stage, to be honest with you. I'm in a place of serenity right now to be - yes.
CHRIS: The fact that news has essentially become infotainment. It's just an adjunct of the Internet now, and they're just trying to skew the real issues we could be dealing with. I mean, you're as close as we can get to the truth, NPR and PBS. That's just my perspective.
CONAN: If that's as close as we're going to get, we're all in serious trouble.
HORWITZ: Not at all.
CHRIS: Well, you are correct there too.
HORWITZ: But, Chris, you brought something out, that it's important. I mean, the thing about "Network," which, you know, some of us think about as only yesterday, it's a film that's over 35 years old, Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay, and it really was ahead of its time. I mean, he really was on to something. And my wife is - had her head out of the window for the last 35 years.
CONAN: Everyone will remember. It tells the story of Howard Beale's fall from the grace and how the network tried to exploit him for ratings, much to the dismay of some of his friends in the business.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "NETWORK")
WILLIAM HOLDEN: (as Max Schumacher) Howard Beale may be my best friend. I'll go to court. I'll put him in a hospital before I'll let you exploit him like a carnival freak.
ROBERT DUVALL: (as Frank Hackett) You get your psychiatrists, I'll get mine.
HOLDEN: (as Max Schumacher) I'm going to spread this whole reeking business in every newspaper, on every network, group and affiliate in this country. I'm going to make a lot of noise about this.
DUVALL: (as Frank Hackett) Great. We need all the press we can get.
CONAN: That's that great cynicism. Chris, thanks very much for the call.
CHRIS: You're welcome. Aloha, guys.
CONAN: This is - let's see if we can go to - this is a nominee from Maryanne by email in Athens, Ohio: Best ever: "All the President's Men." I watch it any time it's on. I was around 20 when Watergate happened, so the movie's significance regarding something that happened in recent memory is remarkable every time I see it. And, of course, not just great for the portrayal of the two reporters, but for the portrayal of a great editor.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN")
JASON ROBARDS: (as Ben Bradlee) Look, McGovern's dropped to nothing. Nixon's guaranteed the renomination. The Post is stuck with a story no one else wants. It'll sink the (bleep) paper. Everyone says, get off it, Ben, and I came on very sage, and I say, well, you'll see, wait till this bottoms out. But the truth is, I can't figure out what we've got. What else you working on?
DUSTIN HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) We're after a list of CREEP employees.
ROBARDS: (as Ben Bradlee) Where is it?
HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) It's classified.
ROBARDS: (as Ben Bradlee) How are you going to get it?
HOFFMAN: (as Carl Bernstein) We haven't had any luck yet.
ROBARDS: (as Ben Bradlee) Get some.
HORWITZ: Jason Robards as Ben Bradlee and I think very close to Ben Bradlee.
CONAN: Very close to Ben Bradlee.
HORWITZ: It's a good portrayal. You know, what's interesting, Neal, is that both Maryanne's nomination, "All the President's Men," and Chris's, "Network," came out in the same year, 1976, our bicentennial year. And one, you know, portrays journalists as heroes and the other not so much.
CONAN: Let's see if we get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Sue and another nominee coming in from Athens, Ohio.
CONAN: Hi. Go ahead.
SUE: Yes. I'd like to nominate "His Girl Friday" with Cary Grant.
HORWITZ: Oh, Sue, I love you.
SUE: It's one of my favorite movies, the (unintelligible). Every time I see it, I hear something else that's funny I missed the first time.
CONAN: Well, that's because they talk so fast, you could barely catch what they're saying. This is the speediest...
SUE: I know.
CONAN: ...dialogue - just listen to this exchange. She slows down a little at the end, but not before she speeds up.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "HIS GIRL FRIDAY")
CARY GRANT: (as Walter Burns) You're a newspaper man.
ROSALIND RUSSELL: (as Hildy Johnson) That's why I'm quitting. I want to go some place where I can be a woman.
GRANT: (as Walter Burns) You mean be a traitor.
RUSSELL: (as Hildy Johnson) A traitor? A traitor to what?
GRANT: (as Walter Burns) A traitor to journalism. You're a journalist, Hildy.
RUSSELL: (as Hildy Johnson) A journalist? What does that mean? Peeking through keyholes, chasing after fire engines, waking people up in the middle of the night to ask them if Hitler's going to start another war, stealing pictures off old ladies? I know all about reporters, Walter. A lot of daffy buttinskies running around without a nickel in their pockets and for what? So a million hired girls and motormen's wives will know what's going on? (Unintelligible) Walter, you wouldn't know what it means to - I want to be respectable and live a halfway normal life. The point is, I'm through.
CONAN: I haven't been called a buttinsky for quite a while.
HORWITZ: (Unintelligible) original - Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant, and this is one of many versions of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's classic play, probably the American classic about journalism, "The Front Page." Only in this one, the star reporter, Hildy Johnson, is a woman.
CONAN: Yeah, originally Pat O'Brien in the first version of the movie.
HORWITZ: And originally on Broadway, Lee Tracy, who speaks faster than any of them.
CONAN: And that dialogue, that is snappy stuff and also the hiding-in-the-desk stuff. It's just great, great, great stuff.
HORWITZ: All that stuff. It's just a wonderful - Sue, you got it, you know, 100 percent.
SUE: Yeah. Thanks. I really appreciate it.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. Let's see if we go next to - this is Jay. Jay with us from Fayetteville in Arkansas.
JAY: Yeah. I'm right here. My movie is "The Killing Fields."
CONAN: We don't see - this is the foreign correspondent-type movie.
JAY: That's exactly what it is, in Cambodia, and I think it's a really heartbreaking movie and a brilliant depiction of how journalists get caught up in their own stories, as you were talking about earlier.
HORWITZ: Right. That's in that's category where they really get involved. I'm blanking. Was it Sam Waterston? Who's the...
JAY: Sam Waterston.
JAY: Embarrassingly, I can't remember the name of the...
HORWITZ: The Cambodian physician. Right, who...
JAY: Yeah, who was amazing, and is his translator.
CONAN: Did he get an Oscar?
HORWITZ: Yes. The Oscar for best supporting actor. And it's just - it's a very, very powerful film.
JAY: Yeah, very powerful, also a great war movie. But it feels to me more like a journalism movie than a war movie. Sam Waterston plays a New York Times reporter.
HORWITZ: He plays Sydney...
HORWITZ: ...Schanberg. Sydney Schanberg, whom I actually met once. And believe me, he did well to have a Sam Waterston portray him.
CONAN: He did. I also met Sydney Schanberg.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call. But it does remind us of, you know, sort of an earlier style of foreign correspondent movie. Here's Joel McCrea.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT")
JOEL MCCREA: (as Johnny Johnson) It's too late to do anything here now, except stand in the dark and let them come. As if the lights were all out everywhere, except in America. Keep those lights burning. Cover them with steel. Ring them with guns. Build a canopy of battleships and bombing planes around them. Hello, America. Hang on to your lights. They're the only lights left in the world.
CONAN: Alfred Hitchcock.
HORWITZ: Alfred Hitchcock did it, and Alfred Hitchcock was a Brit. I think he didn't like what was going on in England...
HORWITZ: ...in 1939 and 1940. So this really to a certain extent had a propagandistic flavor to it, trying to gin up support for the war effort before the United States was actually at war. And, in fact, there's a neutral American, you know, trying desperately to save his neutrality and it's clearly the wrong choice. It's one of Alfred Hitchcock's greats.
CONAN: There is - interestingly, another reporter who covered the Blitz, covered it for a radio, a kid named Edward R. Murrow.
HORWITZ: A kid.
CONAN: But the film that was made about him was not about that coverage, or at least not yet. But about a little bit later, the McCarthy era, "Good Night, and Good Luck."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK")
DAVID STRATHAIRN: (as Edward R. Murrow) This instrument can teach. It can illuminate and, yes, it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it towards those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.
CONAN: And that presents the problem. As well as that is said, he doesn't say it as well as Murrow said it.
HORWITZ: It's true. It's true. David Strathairn, I think, did a wonderful job in that role. I mean, it's a really hard thing to do. And actually, NPR's own Murrow boy, Dan Schorr, I once actually had the opportunity of seeing the movie with him, and he said he thought David Strathairn had Murrow down very, very well.
CONAN: We're talking with Murray Horwitz, our favorite film buff. We're going through the best movies about the news business. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And we've talked about varying degrees of seriousness. There are also, well, there is a comedy or two. "Anchorman." Not a (unintelligible) news movie, emails Steven, but memorable nonetheless. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ANCHORMAN: THE LEGEND OF RON BURGUNDY")
TIM ROBBINS: (as Public TV News Anchor) Not so fast, you ingrates. Public News Team is taking a break from its pledge drive to kick some ass. No commercials, no mercy.
HORWITZ: Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy versus Christina Applegate in San Diego and trying to save his ratings and other things.
CONAN: This is - email from Scott in Overland Park, Kansas - excuse me. Everyone should see Paul Newman and Sally Field in "Absence of Malice." There's a line at the end of the movie where Sally Field's reporter character asks - is asked officially by one of her colleagues if what Field's character said was true. After a long pause, she says no, but it's accurate. Something really to ponder. My runner-up would have to be "The Paper" with Michael Keaton. Educational but funny and fun.
HORWITZ: Right. I agree with Scott 100 percent about those two movies.
CONAN: And it's interesting. As we go through these, there is another category, which is the sort of - the ambition of the media person.
HORWITZ: Right. Right, right, right.
CONAN: And perhaps Nicole Kidman personified that as the aspiring TV reporter in "To Die For," part journalist and part femme fatale.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "TO DIE FOR")
NICOLE KIDMAN: (as Suzanna Stone Maretto) I believe that in our fast-moving computer age that it's the medium of television that joins together the global community. And it is the television journalist who serves as messenger, bringing the world into our homes and our homes into the world. It has always been my dream to become such a messenger. I look to you, gentlemen, now to make that dream a reality.
HORWITZ: That - you know, it's maybe my favorite Nicole Kidman role. I mean, she is acting in this in a way that doesn't let you know she's acting. It's directed by Gus Van Sant. It's - geez, that movie's over 15 years old now.
CONAN: It is. Yeah.
HORWITZ: And I think it's a Buck Henry screenplay, if I don't miss my guess.
CONAN: I think you're right. Yeah.
CONAN: There are a couple that I would like to mention almost as honorable mentions.
I know your favorite.
Well, there is "Come Fill the Cup."
HORWITZ: I knew it.
CONAN: This is...
HORWITZ: It's a great film.
CONAN: This is a combination alcoholism movie, newspaper movie...
HORWITZ: Gangster movie.
CONAN: ...and a gangster movie.
HORWITZ: That's true.
CONAN: With Jimmy Cagney and Gig Young, and I think Raymond Massey's in it. It's just wonderful, wonderful stuff. And there is the great radio journalism movie, "The Great Man"...
HORWITZ: "The Great Man."
CONAN: ...with Jose Ferrer and...
CONAN: ...Keenan Wynn. Julie London is in this movie. It's a great picture. It's a Roman a clef, supposed to be about Arthur Godfrey.
HORWITZ: Oh, it's Arthur - some people say Lowell Thomas, some people say Charles Lindbergh. I mean, there's all kinds of - some right-wing...
CONAN: Anyway, but it's a great movie.
HORWITZ: It's a very well-written movie, very well-made movie, great cast. May I put in two? There's - as usual, I'm going to give you a silent. Buster Keaton in "The Cameraman"...
HORWITZ: ...where he captures a Tong war, and it's just - and it makes his reputation. And the other one is also about a photographer. It's really about the press in a way. It is the movie that gave us the name paparazzi, and that's Federico Fellini's "La Dolce Vita."
CONAN: Sure. I hadn't thought about that. But, yeah, that's interesting. But who gets the Murray?
HORWITZ: Well, just because there's this line at the end that I'm not even sure, maybe we have it, where you hear Humphrey Bogart say, you hear that? That's the power of the press or the power of the people. And it's "Deadline - U.S.A."
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "DEADLINE - U.S.A")
HUMPHREY BOGART: (as Ed Hutcheson) Not enough anymore to give them just news. They want comics, contest, puzzles. They want to know how to bake a cake, win friends and influence the future. Ergo, horoscopes, tips on the horses, interpretation of dreams so they can win on the numbers lotteries. And if they accidentally stumble on the first page, news.
CONAN: Well, I'm glad that rate Rienzi is out of the mob business now.
HORWITZ: That's a gangster movie too in a way.
CONAN: In a way.
HORWITZ: Gangster Rienze, but it's - you know, Kim Hunter, Ethel Barrymore, it's directed by Richard Brooks. It's a terrific film.
CONAN: Murray, as always, it has been a great pleasure. Thank you so much.
HORWITZ: A great pleasure. Till next summer.
CONAN: TOTN's favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joined us here in Studio 3A. Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Ira Flatow will be here. Have a great Labor Day weekend, everybody. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.