Tag Archives: photojournalism

My favorite films about journalism

By Christopher B. Daly

This weekend marked the general release of the terrific new film “Spotlight,” about the team of investigative journalists at the Boston Globe who broke the prize-winning story about the widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests. The film, as I noted in my review, is a much-needed valentine to traditional news media, praising their willingness to use their resources in pursuit of telling the truth and holding the powerful accountable.

“Spotlight” is already being hailed (to use a bit of journalese) as one of the best films of all time about journalism. Which raises the question:

What are the best films about journalism?

Here’s my annotated list:

[I like all of these films, for one reason or another, so I am not ranking them. Instead, they are arranged chronologically, which makes some interesting points about the evolving view of journalists over time. I had never noticed how many of these come in clusters, which must be a lagging indicator of something.]

 

I COVER THE WATERFRONT (1933)

Claudette Colbert plays a smuggler’s daughter who is being investigated by a reporter, played by Ben Lyon. Complications naturally ensue. Fun fact: The title song was recorded by Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra and others.

 

HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)

Dir. Howard Hawks. My personal favorite. Watch Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell at the top of their games in a romp through Chicago journalism of MV5BMTM3ODQ2Mzg0MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjM3ODA5._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_the 1920s. HGF features an epically dense screenplay, as the two leads constantly talk over each other. One memorable zinger after another. From the play, “The Front Page,” written by journalists Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur.

 

FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT (1940)

Dir: Alfred Hitchcock. Joel McCrea plays a young American reporter in London on the eve of WWII, trying to expose enemy agents (as all good journalists just naturally do!). Ben Hecht is one of the writers, though uncredited.

 

CITIZEN KANE (1941)

The cinematic masterpiece from Orson Welles, who wrote, directed and MV5BMTQ2Mjc1MDQwMl5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNzUyOTUyMg@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_starred. It’s a thinly veiled biography of William Randolph Hearst, who hated it and did all he could (which was a lot) to try to suppress it. Welles gets the last laugh. Screenplay co-credit goes to Herman J. Mankiewicz.

 

 

WOMAN OF THE YEAR (1942)

The first of the nine Hepburn/Tracy films. Two rival reporters meet cute and marry not-so-cute. Kate Hepburn plays a version of the real-life columnist Dorothy Thompson. Spencer Tracy wishes his globe-trotting, multi-lingual wife were home a bit more often. Ring Lardner Jr. shares screenwriting credit.

 

GENTLEMAN’S AGREEMENT (1947)

Gregory Peck plays a journalist who decides to investigate anti-semitism by pretending to be Jewish himself. Peck at his righteous best. Screenplay by Moss Hart, based on novel by Laura Z. Hobson.

 

CALL NORTHSIDE 777 (1948)

Jimmy Stewart, who knew his way around a fedora, plays a Chicago reporter who re-opens a cold murder case in this film-noir drama.

 

SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS (1957)

Burt Lancaster, depicts gossip columnist Walter Winchell. Tony Curtis, MV5BNTk2MzU2ODc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDU1MjkyMw@@._V1_UY105_CR6,0,105,105_AL_plays an oily, sycophantic p.r. agent. A noir masterpiece that explores the careers of people who don’t know how not to manipulate others. One of the screenwriting credits goes to playwright Clifford Odets.

 

ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)

MV5BODAxMTc4ODcxNF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDY0NTAyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR8,0,214,317_AL_The essential celebration of investigative reporting, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The film dramatizes the real-life reporting of the Washington Post reporters that led to the downfall of President Nixon. Screenwriter William Goldman wrote the best line, uttered by Hal Holbrook, playing “Deep Throat” in a dark and empty parking garage: “Follow the money.”

 

NETWORK (1976)

Dir: Sidney Lumet. Starring: Faye Dunaway and William Holden. Featuring Peter Finch for his memorable freak-out live on television, urging viewers to join him in ranting: “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” Writer: Paddy Chayefsky

 

THE CHINA SYNDROME (1979)

Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and a bearded Michael Douglas star in this drama about white-hat journalists exposing safety problems at a nuclear power plant. Very much in the shadow of the Three Mile Island incident of the same year.

 

ABSENCE OF MALICE (1981)

Dir. Sydney Pollack. Sally Field plays a young reporter who libels Paul Newman (horrors) by publishing leaked information about him that is false and harmful to his reputation. This one causes a lot of journalists to squirm.

 

THE YEAR OF LIVING DANGEROUSLY (1982)

Dir. Peter Weir. Mel Gibson and Sigourney Weaver. Australian reporter, assisted by Linda Hunt, covers Indonesia during a period of turmoil and finds time to romance Sigourney Weaver. Could be Gibson’s career high.

 

THE KILLING FIELDS (1984)

Sam Waterston depicting NYTimes correspondent Sydney Shanberg covering Cambodia during the appalling regime of the Khmer Rouge. Terrific performance by first-time actor Haing S. Ngor, portraying the Cambodian photojournalist Dith Pran.

 

BROADCAST NEWS (1987)

Dir. James L. Brooks. A romantic triangle involving William Hurt, Albert Brooks, and their boss, the incomparable Holly Hunter. Set in a MV5BMTMwMzg2Mzc1OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwNjY4ODk4._V1_UX100_CR0,0,100,100_AL_television newsroom, the main characters manage to address real journalistic issues without preachy speeches. Written by James L. Brooks, no relation to Albert. (who also wrote the newsroom-based TV shows Mary Tyler Moore and Lou Grant).

 

THE PAPER (1994)

Dir: Ron Howard (formerly Opie on Mayberry). Michael Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the city editor of a NYC tabloid, in a day-in-the-life about a journalist’s crusade for the truth at any cost: major fight with wife, lost job at the New York Times, etc. Highlight: the knock-down brawl with Glenn Close.

 

WAG THE DOG (1997)

Dir. Barry Levinson. An acidic satire of Washington’s manipulation of the mass media. Starring Robert DeNiro as a political operative who enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to gin up a photogenic war to divert public attention from scandal. Hoffman envisions was as “a pageant.” From the book by Larry Beinhart.

 

FEAR AND LOATHING IN LAS VEGAS (1998)

Dir.: Terry Gilliam.

Benicio del Toro plays Dr. Gonzo himself. In a masterpiece of understatement, IMDb tries to gets its arms around this film this way: “An oddball journalist and his psychopathic lawyer travel to Las Vegas for a series of psychedelic escapades.” That about sums it up. From the book by HST.

MV5BMTk4NjQwNTc0OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTYwOTQzNTA3._V1_SY317_CR3,0,214,317_AL_

 

THE INSIDER (1999)

Starring Russell Crowe and Al Pacino. Based on CBS investigation into Big Tobacco. Crowe plays a chemist-turned-whistleblower, and Pacino plays TV producer Lowell Bergman as a blow-hard. Christopher Plummer portrays a TV reporter based on Mike Wallace of CBS’s “60 Minutes” – who did not appreciate the insinuation that he pulled punches. Based on Marie Brenner’s article in Vanity Fair called “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”

 

 ALMOST FAMOUS (2000)

Writer/director Cameron Crowe wonders what it would have been like to be a teenager who gets to write a story for Rolling Stone that involves traveling with a rock band on tour. Starring Kate Hudson as the allusive groupie Penny Lane.

 

SHATTERED GLASS (2003)

The sad, miserable story of some guy (I don’t want to even use his name) who bamboozled his editors at The New Republic for an unforgivably long time. The guy’s story pitches were too good to be true, alas. Partial writing credit: journalist Buzz Bissinger.

 

CAPOTE (2005) MV5BMTczMzU0MjM1MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMjczNzgyNA@@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_

In one of his last major roles, Philip Seymour Hoffman does a star turn as the writer Truman Capote as he undertakes the reporting that turned into the non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood.” Catherine Keener plays the young Nelle Harper, Capote’s sidekick and better known as the author Harper Lee of “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

 

GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK (2005)

Dir. George Clooney. David Straithairn plays Edward R. Murrow in this heroic biopic. Good as far as it goes, but it pulls punches on what happened to Murrow after he took on Sen. Joseph McCarthy. (CBS sidelined Murrow because he was too overtly political.) Clooney wrote it, too.

 

THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA (2006)MV5BMTMyNjk4Njc3NV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDkyMTEzMw@@._V1_SX80_CR0,0,80,80_

Meryl Streep plays an imperious editor of a woman’s high-fashion magazine (a la Anna Wintour at Vogue), and Anne Hathaway plays her plucky assistant. Terrific cast.

 

FROST/NIXON (2008)

A dramatization of the real-life interviews conducted by British talk-show host David Frost with disgraced former president Richard Nixon (see “All the President’s Men”). Frank Langella turns in a very credible Nixon. Fun fact: the role played by Oliver Platt in the film was played in real life by former BU Journalism professor Bob Zelnick.

 

STATE OF PLAY (2009)

Replacing Brad Pitt (who backed out), Russell Crowe plays an old-school Washington reporter covering the death of a congressional aide, with help from perky blogger Rachel McAdams, who tries to teach the old dog Crowe some new reporting tricks found on this thing called the Internet. Fun cameos of actual DC reporters, including Woodward.

 

SPOTLIGHT (2015)

Dir. Tom McCarthy. With help from screenwriter Josh Singer, McCarthy delivers an appreciative bouquet to traditional “accountability” journalism. Based on the true story of the Pulitzer-winning investigative reporting team at the Boston Globe who exposed the rampant sexual abuse and extensive cover-up within the Boston Catholic archdiocese.

*        *         *      *       *       *

Honorable mention, TV series:

The Wire, Season 5

Newsroom

Lou Grant

Superman (George Reeves)

See a mild-mannered reporter at The Daily Planet, Clark Kent, turn into a righteous super hero. If only all reporters could be caped crusaders.

 

Honorable mention, documentaries:

Reporting America at War

Control Room

Around the World in 72 Days

Outfoxed

 

 

[For more info, see the website Image of Journalism in Popular Culture at USC]

 

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The story to watch: Hong Kong

By Christopher B. Daly 

Where will the new Hong Kong protests lead? Hard to say.

For decades, it has been widely assumed that if there were a serious blow delivered against the regime in China, it would fall at Tiananmen Square, the huge paved space in Beijing linking one of the ancient seats of power (the Forbidden City) and the current seat of power (the Great Hall of the People). Tiananmen, which was the site of the last serious challenge to the government in 1989, is tightly guarded by soldiers, undercover cops, and surveillance cameras.

But it may be that the government’s unsleeping gaze (like the Eye of Sauron) is looking in the wrong place. In faraway Hong Kong, young protesters are demanding the right to vote for their leaders — a demand that the regime in Beijing cannot possibly grant. Having taking Hong Kong back from the British in 1997, I believe that the Chinese have no intention of fulfilling their promise to allow Hong Kong residents to elect their leaders by 2017. The young demonstrators are challenging the government directly, which could force a showdown that will demand the world’s attention.

Follow the unfolding coverage in the NYTimes, the South China Morning Post, the Guardian, the BBC. Some terrific early photos are here at NYT.

Any other good sources, with independent, on-the-ground reporters and photographers?

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What can we learn from a Civil War sketch artist?

by Christopher B. Daly

Plenty.

The little-known artist Alfred Waud was one of the most important “visual journalists” covering the greatest conflict in American history. Along with the young Winslow Homer and Thomas Nast, Waud was assigned to cover the fighting, including the critical Battle of Gettysburg, by drawing sketches that could quickly be converted into engravings that could be printed along with text in the pages of newspapers like Harper’s Weekly.

Much better known are the photographs of Mathew Brady (and his less-well-known team of assistants). But Brady’s photos, for all their power and terribly beauty, all suffered from the technical limitations of the mid-19th century. In order for the chemical emulsions used in photography to leave an impression on the glass or metal plates, the camera’s shutter had to be left open for a comparatively long time — at least several seconds. As a result, cameras in the Civil War era were unable to stop action. If the subject was moving, the image would be blurred.

So, it fell to sketch artists to capture any scene involving motion or action.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper's Weekly. Library of Congress.

Sketch of action at Gettysburg by Alfred Waud for Harper’s Weekly.
Library of Congress.

Now, a professor at Northern Kentucky University has used a Waud sketch to try to learn more about the crucial fighting that took place in Gettysburg, Pa., from July 1 to July 3, 1865. Emeritus Prof. Michael C.C. Adams argues that the sketch by Waud can be used to deduce the distance at which the opposing forces opened fire on each other. Many more Waud sketches can be found online or at the Library of Congress.

In the history of journalism, those Civil War sketches are some of the first examples of illustrating the news in a documentary fashion. Hats off to those brave sketch artists who got right up to the front lines armed with nothing more than a palette and some chalk.

 Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg. Library of Congress


Alfred Waud, at Gettysburg.
Library of Congress

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Tyler Hicks — a grim day in Gaza

By Christopher B. Daly

The remarkable Tyler Hicks seems to have a knack for being present where things happen. Hicks, the NYTimes photojournalist who won a Pulitzer Prize for breaking news this year for his 2013 photos of a mass shooting at a mall in Kenya, just happened to be nearby Wednesday when news broke again. He was staying at a seaside hotel in Gaza when an Israeli rocket struck the beach, killing four young cousins.

In an unusual move, the Times posted a first-person piece by Hicks, in which he described his work. Here’s an excerpt:

I had returned to my small seaside hotel around 4 p.m. to file photos to New York when I heard a loud explosion. My driver and I rushed to the window to see what had happened. A small shack atop a sea wall at the fishing port had been struck by an Israeli bomb or missile and was burning. A young boy emerged from the smoke, running toward the adjacent beach.

I grabbed my cameras and was putting on body armor and a helmet when, about 30 seconds after the first blast, there was another. The boy I had seen running was now dead, lying motionless in the sand, along with three other boys who had been playing there.

By the time I reached the beach, I was winded from running with my heavy armor. I paused; it was too risky to go onto the exposed sand. Imagine what my silhouette, captured by an Israeli drone, might look like as a grainy image on a laptop somewhere in Israel: wearing body armor and a helmet, carrying cameras that could be mistaken for weapons. If children are being killed, what is there to protect me, or anyone else?

I watched as a group of people ran to the children’s aid. I joined them, running with the feeling that I would find safety in numbers, though I understood that feeling could be deceptive: Crowds can make things worse. We arrived at the scene to find lifeless, mangled bodies. The boys were beyond help. They had been killed instantly, and the people who had rushed to them were shocked and distraught.

Here’s the photo the Times posted:

The Times' caption: The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City on Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

The Times’ caption:
The aftermath of an airstrike on a beach in Gaza City on Wednesday. Four young Palestinian boys, all cousins, were killed. Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

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Jacob Riis showed “How the Other Half Lives”

By Christopher B. Daly 

A hat-tip to journalist and educator Ted Gup for a terrific story about his discovery of a classic work of journalism history — the copy of How the Other Half Lives that was owned and annotated by the author himself, Jacob Riis. As I described him in my book, Covering America, Riis (pronounced rees) was a Danish immigrant to New York City who was shocked and outraged by the conditions he found in the city’s many tenements in the late 19th century. Picking up his notebook and a camera (equipped with a then-new technology — the portable flash), he explored the warrens of tiny, windowless rooms where New York’s newest and most miserable found cheap housing. In buildings lacking heat, ventilation and plumbing, the masses huddled while the wealthy were building ever grander pleasure domes uptown on Fifth Avenue and the rest of the Upper East Side. His work also provided a template for the journalists of the classic “muckraking” movement in the first decade of the 20th Century. 

An important thing to know about Riis’ expose, published in 1890, is that it had an impact. His photos and writing contributed to a political demand for improvements in New York City housing codes, which resulted in concrete improvements in the tenements. The city adopted new building codes that required more light, less crowding and, eventually, heat and plumbing.

In his piece in today’s Times, Gup — an investigative journalist himself who now chairs the Journalism Dept at crosstown Emerson College — describes how he stumbled upon a first edition of How the Other Half Lives that contains Riis’ own handwritten comments and marginalia. He also rightly commends Riis as a “multimedia” journalist for his combining of text and photos (and his use of a flash to light up those dark inner rooms of the tenements).

As many have observed (including the city’s new mayor, Bill DeBlasio), Riis is as relevant as ever, now that New York City is living through another Gilded Age in which wealth is as unevenly distributed as it was in the days of Rockefeller, Morgan, and Hearst.

"The Italian Rag-picker," by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.  Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

“The Italian Rag-picker,” by Jacob Riis, from his book, How the Other Half Lives.
Photo from Museum of the City of New York.

 

 

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White House photogs demand access

And they should get it (much as I would like to side with B.U. alum Pete Souza, the official White House photographer).

Here’s a version.

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New AP book of Vietnam War photos

By Christopher B. Daly

Thanks to The Associated Press, there’s a new book of news photographs from the American war in Vietnam that will remind us of all the chaos, confusion, heroism, beauty, and tragedy of those years — as seen through the eyes of AP photographers and correspondents.

From today’s preview in the NYTimes:

Now, amid a flurry of anniversary commemorations of that tumultuous era and a surge of interest in war photography, The A.P. has, for the first time, culled its estimated 25,000 Vietnam photographs and reprinted some 250 in a book, “Vietnam: The Real War,” with an introduction by Pete Hamill, to be published by Abrams on Oct. 1.

Chuck Zoeller, the agency’s manager of special projects, said the dozens of rarely seen photographs in this collection include color plates of United States prisoners of war in a Hanoi prison in 1972 and historical images from the French colonial period. There is a photo of President John F. Kennedy in Florida, reviewing a commando unit back from action as early as 1962. And there are troubling scenes: Vietcong prisoners being kicked and subjected to water torture by South Vietnamese troops. A Vietnamese family of four, dead on a blanket, killed in a stampede as panicked refugees fled the advancing North Vietnamese in 1975.

Several of the most powerful photos from the era appear in my 2012 book, Covering America, because they not only documented the news but in several cases they also made news. They were that powerful. I am thinking of Mal Browne’s photo of a Buddhist monk burning himself to death in 1963 or the photo of the “napalm girl” in 1972 by Nick Ut. 

Here’s another heart-breaking photo from the new compilation, taken by the AP’s photo editor in Vietnam, Horst Faas (who died last year, as did Browne):

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.  Photo: Horst Faas.

A Vietnamese farmer holds the body of his dead child while a group of South Vietnamese soldiers looks on.
Photo: Horst Faas.

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