With the release of The Post, Steven Spielberg’s superb study of the Washington Post war to publish the truth which is also a seething allegory about the Trump presidency, I began to go back and explore the great films about journalism, both print and broadcast. It is fascinating to see how times have changed, reporters once doing their jobs with hours of research and dead ends, now blessed with the internet and immediate news. There was always something exciting and noble seeing the journalists eyes light up while following a lead to their assignment, or realizing they had just broke a major story. Good writing and television reporting is about obsession, putting a hook in a story and never letting go. Digging in, never backing down, fighting for the truth. Nothing else matters but the truth.
The single aspect that has not and hopefully will not ever change is the truth, that relentless search for reporting what is true. In many instances, this regard for truth, for integrity is placed above everything, even profit. The Constitution of The United States gives freedom to the press, making clear the press is to inform those governed, not be controlled by the government.
Most of the very best films about outstanding journalism remain about the relentless quest for the truth, as though credibility meant everything, should it not in this case? In order of greatness, here’s the list of top films about journalism and the press — either print or broadcast — of all time. You can watch several of these best journalism movies on Netflix, Hulu or Amazon Prime.
15. The Insider (1999)
Well directed by Michael Mann, this powerful film deals with the famous 60 Minutes expose on big tobacco, bringing in a tobacco executive hoping he will speak out. Jeffrey Wigand is portrayed with a quiet fury by Russell Crowe, nearly unrecognizable in the role, arguably the best performance of his career. Mann shoots the film as a fast paced action film as the producers and host of 60 Minutes fight to get the report aired. Christopher Plummer gave rebirth to his career as Mike Wallace in a pitch perfect performance while Al Pacino is solid, not as prone to yelling in this film. Crowe is the story here, earning the first of three consecutive Oscar nominations for Best Actor. How they managed to ignore Plummer forca nomination I have never understood.
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14. The People vs. Larry Flynt (1996)
Freedom of the press is a constitutional right, even when that press is connected, heavily to pornography. Larry Flynt was a porn monger, obsessed with women, obsessed with making his mark, Flynt created Hustler Magazine, one of the trashiest mainstream porn magazines in existence. Nothing was safe from the Hustler writers, no institution, not Santa Claus, the characters from The Wizard of Oz, the US President, not even Jesus. And the photo layouts were the most revealing of the time. Woody Harrelson made his mark as an actors with his superb performance as Flynt, so hated an assassination attempt would leave him paralyzed from the waist down. Courtney Love is a revelation, drop dead brilliant as his wife Althea, who died young, a drug addict. The film won Love every major critics award for supporting actress and brought Harrelson his first Oscar nomination as well as a nomination for Milos Forman.
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13. Almost Famous (2000)
A beautifully nostalgic film about rock and roll, the love of music, and the emergence of a boy into a man, a fan into a writer. Cameron Crowe was fifteen years old when he was a free-lance writer for Rolling Stone, hired to do a piece on a major band, touring with them, a True inside look at the band. The director tells his story here, using a fictitious band, but sharing the details of his journey with the band Still Water. Patrick Fugit is very good as the surrogate Cameron, but the film belongs to Kate Hudson as old soul, Penny Lane, the object of many men’s love, but who adores guitarist Russell (Billy Crudup). A terrific look at behind the scenes rock and roll, an insightful study of what it is to be a free-lance writer, and how a writer can fall in love with their subject. Great performances surrounding Hudson include Crudup and Frances McDormand. A bomb but Oscar winner for Screenplay, and cult classic.
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12. Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
Based on the true story of TV news pioneer Edward Murrow, who came to define what it was to be an investigative journalist and one of the great interviewers of all time. At the height of the McCarthy witch hunt, Murrow took on Joseph McCarthy, attacking his tactics and facts, leaving himself and CBS open to further attacks. His reputation on the line, Murrow and his team must dig down and make a decision as to what they want to do. David Straithern is superb as Murrow, capturing every unique detail of the man, right down to the ever present cigarette. George Clooney directed the film with a confident hand, sharing credit for the script, proving himself a major Director. Nominated for six Academy Awards, it is a modern masterpiece.
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11. Capote (2005)
In the late fifties, celebrated writer Truman Capote, openly gay, a hard partying New York who ran with the rich and famous became obsessed with a story out of the American Midwest. Two men had broken into a family’s farmhouse looking for money, after hearing there might be ten thousand dollars in cash stashed in the home. Losing control, the men slaughtered the family, were tried found guilty and now sat on death row awaiting execution. Capote made several trips to the prison where they were being held, manipulating Perry into a strangely trusting friendship for the purpose of writing his book, In Cold Blood. Capote makes the mistake of getting too close to his subject, caring about him, feeling for him. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is astounding as Capote, capturing the sharp mind of this writer who created a new genre of book with In Cold Blood, the docu-drama and in-depth crime novel. Haunting in its raw power.
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10. Under Fire (1983)
A powerful study of world-weary journalists covering conflicts around the globe, beginning in Africa but quickly settling into Nicaragua. Two newsman, portrayed by Gene Hackman and Joanna Cassidy, along with photo journalist Nick Nolte are covering fall of the Samoza regime as it is happening. Based loosely on the killing of ABC news reporter Bill Stewart, his murder caught on film, the film is a searing look at the dangers of the job in foreign lands during times of revolution. Ed Harris is frightening as a bright-eyed CIA killer, but the film belongs to Nolte, who gets far more attached to the rebels than he should. Beautifully directed, shot, edited and acted it is a movie masterpiece, less, perhaps about journalism than war, but brilliant nonetheless. One of the greatest musical scores in movie history.
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9. Broadcast News (1987)
An intelligent, darkly comic study behind the scenes of a news program superbly directed and written by James L. Brooks. Holly Hunter is ablaze in the film as a whipsmart news producer, always the smartest in whatever room she is in, but neurotic, filled with wild energy. William Hurt is outstanding as a good looking news anchor, not very bright but more than aware of what he does well, and what he does not. Albert Brooks is equally good as a news writer, brilliant, who longs to be an anchor but lacks the composure Hurt wears on his sleeve. Hurt comes off as intelligent on the air, but is dumb as a post and a master at covering it. Darkly comic, the film explores the politics behind the scenes, the corruption that can exist in making someone look more than they are, and of course, why relationships at work often do not work. Jack Nicholson has a very good cameo as the smug national news anchor, walking about the station like a God descended from on high. Superb, with Hunter Oscar worthy.
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8. Spotlight (2015)
One of the finest studies about investigative journalism on film, written and directed by Tom McCarthy, this won the Best Picture Oscar in 2015, besting The Revenant. Based on the true story of the Boston Globe investigating the Catholic Church and the church’s habit of moving around priests accused of sexual assaults as opposed to firing them or bringing them to justice, the film is intense, intelligent, and finally deeply moving. Knowing they are risking their reputation by taking on the powerful church in Catholic dominated Boston they forge on because they know they should. Superb performances from Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, and tight direction from McCarthy make this a knockout. Keaton gives a strong, lived in performance which won him the New York Film Critics Award as Best Actor, but did not result in an Oscar nomination he clearly deserved. The film won Best Picture and Screenplay, just two.
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7. Network (1976)
It now seems inconceivable that Network was released forty two years ago this year, and its statements about what television might become, littered with reality programming, have come to pass. An acerbic, acid tongued script from Paddy Chayefsky peers into the corporate world of TV at a fictitious network UBS. It begins when the anchor of the network news is fired, he proceeds to have a full scale breakdown live on TV causing an ambitious power hungry executive to grab him, oblivious to his mental health and make him the biggest thing on TV. But when his laser gaze is turned on his own network, the suits panic and we how cruel TV can indeed be. Fay Dunaway, William Holden, and Peter Finch were never better in this intense film directed by Sidney Lumet. Oscars went to Dunaway, Finch, Beatrice Straight and Chayevsky. Sidney Lumet directed the film, his finest. Finch looks like a wounded old lion as he roars that famous line into the cameras, “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” He was speaking for America.
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6. Ace in the Hole (1951)
The dark underbelly of the news and its power for manipulation is explored within this dark picture, beautifully directed by Billy Wilder, one of his finest yet most controversial films. Pulled from release after scathing reviews and released again as The Big Carnival (1951) it has gained in impact through the years. Kirk Douglas is riveting as a disgraced big city newsman reduced to reporting for a small paper near New Mexico. When a mine accident leaves a man trapped below the earth, Douglas sees the chance to kickstart his career at the expense of the Miners life. A circus like atmosphere descends on the area, as TV trucks and media from around the US come to carry the story. Manipulating the circumstances to further his career, it becomes clear Douglas knows the man is doomed and has eyes for the poor fellows money hungry wife. A dark, brilliantly vicious film, that explores with cold honesty the worst aspects of journalism, making it about you.
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5. Citizen Kane (1941)
Yes, it is on the list, Welles superb film about a deeply flawed man is among the greatest films of all time. “I think it might be fun to run a newspaper” we hear Welles say at the beginning of the film, taking over a small press turning it into the most powerful in the country. Based loosely on William Randolph Hearst and the Hearst news empire, Welles is magnificent as the man who spends his life searching for himself without ever knowing what he was looking. Hiding behind the false mission statement of his paper he becomes corrupted by his power before falling from grace, eventually alone and isolated. He proves to be more human than he realized. An astonishing achievement for twenty four year old Welles who should have won Oscars for Best Actor, Best Director and Best Film among others.
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4. Reds (1981)
Warren Beatty talked Paramount into making this huge film which he acted in, directed, produced and co-wrote, his long cherished project of American radical journalist John Reed (Beatty) who wrote Ten Days That Shook the World. An eyewitness account of the Russian Revolution as seen through the eyes of an American, Reeds book was textbook journalism, brilliant, lean and tight. Beauty’s film is among the finest films to explore journalism, but also a love story between Reed and his wife, writer Louise Bryant, portrayed by Diane Keaton. Jack Nicholson is electrifying as the acid tongued Eugene O’Neill, great playwright, best friend of Reed, lover to Bryant who he felt used him. Often stirring, the sequences in Russia capturing the Revolution downright moving, Reds (1981) was nominated for twelve Academy Awards and won three including Best Director for Beatty. The use of aged witnesses, ancient people who knew both Reed and Bryant and understood their unique contributions was a stroke of genius from Beatty. An American masterpiece about a writer forever chasing history.
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3. Zodiac (2007)
In 1969 a serial killer spread terror in San Francisco, taunting the police with messages to the press, bringing the public to its knees in their own brand of fear. The police work with the press, but to no avail through the years. Robert Downey Jr. is at his finest as a chain smoking reporter hot on the trail of the killer, sometimes helped by, more often thwarted by the detective, Mark Ruffalo on the case. Some years later, a cartoonist, portrayed with earnest obsession by Jake Gyllenhall, stumbles back onto the unsolved crimes and becomes obsessed with Zodiac, relentless in his pursuit of the killer, as he writes what will be a best selling book about the killings. He will come face to face with the murderer, yet the man was never brought to justice. Jake Gyllenhaal is superb as the idealistic young writer but it is David Fincher’s confidence in making this tension filled film that make it a masterwork.
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2. The Post (2017)
Just two years before their reporters stumbled onto Watergate, the paper was not the well known, respected news outlet it was, fighting for respectability with the New York Times. Into their lap dropped the Pentagon Papers, thousands of documents stating the government lied to the people about the war in Viet Nam. Meryl Streep is superb as the owner of the Post, Katherine Graham, faced with the decision of publishing and facing ruin, or prison as the order from the White House had come down not to run the story. Steven Spielberg directed the film with a confidence that is remarkable, telling the story in 1971 but also allows the film to be an allegory of Trumps America. Watching Streep with Tom Hanks as gravelly voiced Ben Bradlee is a joy, and the Cracker Jack ensemble is perfection. Spielberg brings undeniable tension to the film, the story hurtling through the few days it took for a decision to be made. Intelligent, remarkable filmmaking.
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1. All the President’s Men (1976)
More than forty years ago, Alan J. Pakula directed this superb adaptation of the book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two reporters from the Washington Post who dug into a case, and uncovered the greatest scandal in the history of America. Their work coupled with the trust placed in them would bring down the Nixon Presidency just eighteen months after a landslide re-election. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are brilliant together as the two relentless young men who believe they are onto something huge. Jason Robards is perfect as Ben Bradlee the hard nosed editor who believes in the boys, and the adaptation is extraordinary, making sense of the chaos of Watergate. The director made the film into a detective thriller, tight, taut, exciting from beginning to end. Nominated for eight Academy Awards, the film won Oscars for Supporting Actor, Art Direction, Sound and screenplay Adaptation. Robbed of Best Film and Best Director. The National Society of Film Critics and New York Film Critics both awarded the film Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actor and William Goldman for his sublime screenplay adaptation as the writer made sense of the chaos and reams of information. A brilliant, important film, a film for the ages.
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