Weekly Writing Tips: Grab Some Popcorn for This One

Movie Theater Geneva, NY, by Flickr user Roey Ahram. Photo taken on February 2012. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Movie Theater, Geneva, NY, by Flickr user Roey Ahram. Photo taken on February 2012. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In this week's writing tips, I'm sharing some of my favorite films related to journalism.

Watching movies about newsrooms, reporters, and the manic beautiful craft of documenting history — as it happens — has been a constant habit, even before I took my first steps towards journalism at a small non-profit radio company in Washington DC, in 2004.

I never planned on becoming a journalist. I went to college with the intention of becoming an architect. People, and the spaces they inhabited, always fascinated me. My thoughts would wander about how, some spaces brought people together and, some spaces divided; how concrete could become bridges that connected, or walls that enclosed our world; and how some spaces made you feel so light and at home, while other spaces weighed heavy and begged for an escape.

A year into taking architecture classes at my liberal arts college, where I was exposed to social sciences, such as political science and anthropology and to provocative history courses, I realized I really wanted to understand why people behaved they way they did. To me, that is at the heart of journalism: helping ourselves and others understand how and why we interact they way we do, with our communities and the spaces and identities, we are made to, or chose to, inhabit. Understanding our world is the first step to fixing it and all the inequities and power imbalances that exist here.

I veered off topic a bit, but here are 8 journalism-related films that can bring us back to reality. Almost all of these films are based on real life events and feature characters that are struggling against power or are trying to highlight flawed power dynamics. Apologies in advance — most of the films here are American or have an American connection.

Good Night, Good Luck

This historical drama was shot in black and white and was directed and written by George Clooney. He stars in it too. The film portrays the conflict between the veteran radio and television journalist Edward R. Murrow and US Senator Joseph McCarthy, over the senator's anti-communist politics.

The movie focuses on the theme of media responsibility, and also addresses what occurs when the media offers a voice of dissent from government policy. The film was nominated for six Oscars.

Good Night, Good Luck is set in 1953, during the early days of television broadcast journalism in US. It came out the year I started working in TV in Pakistan, which was also going through its nascent days of broadcast journalism.

Back then, the lights, cameras, equipment, and manic deadlines were all new to me. So was the quality of journalism that my TV channel was producing. Despite being one of the first independents news networks in the country, with a near monopoly at the time, there was little focus on fact-checking and contextualizing news, and not enough attention to how the news affected people. Powerful people were given more airtime. That's why I love that GV focuses on highlighting the voiceless and that our sources link to the people fighting power, not the people in power.

Control Room

Control Room is the 2004 documentary film about Al Jazeera and its relations with the US Central Command (CENTCOM), as well as the other news organizations that covered the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The film was made by Egyptian-American filmmaker Jehane Noujaim. I watched it while I was helping set up Pakistan's first English language news channel and many of the conflicts the channel went through resonated with the struggles we were going through at the time.

Frost/Nixon

This is another historic drama. The film tells the story behind the Frost/Nixon interviews of 1977. The film received five Oscar nominations. After the Watergate scandal of 1972, President Nixon’ finally resigned in 1974 and left the White House.  British journalist David Frost was recording a talk show in Australia at the time. An unlikely political reporter, something makes Frost jump on a plane to the US. He makes it his mission to interview Nixon. This film is beautifully crafted and shows how far curiosity can take you.

Kill the Messenger

This is based on a true story too. And shows how ugly and competitive the journalism industry can be. In this Journalist Gary Webb (played by the excellent Jeremy Renner) comes upon a story that leads to the origins of America's crack epidemic. His reporting also alleges that the CIA was well-aware of the dealers who were smuggling cocaine into the US and that they used the profits to arm Nicaraguan rebels. As a result of his findings, Webb's career, family and life start to fall apart.

Shattered Glass

This is another true story, but this time of a journalist who fell from grace — and not because of bold reporting. The docufilm chronicles the rapid rise of Stephen Glass’ journalistic career at The New Republic during the 1990s and his steep fall when was is discovered that he fabricated over half of his articles. Lauren Finch recommends this film too!

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is a Swedish psychological thriller film based on a novel by the same name. The novel is part of the millennium series by Stieg Larsson (I've read translations of all three and recommend them). This film adaptation centers around journalist Mikael Blomkvist's investigation to find out what happened to a woman from a wealthy family who disappeared 40 years before. He recruits the help of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander. The novel was also adapted to screen in Hollywood and stars Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara.

Spotlight

This is the latest film in the list. It was released in 2015 and is based on true events. The film follows The Boston Globe's Spotlight team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative journalist unit in the United States, and its investigation into cases of widespread and systemic child sex abuse in the Boston area by numerous Roman Catholic priests. The film is based on a series of stories by the Spotlight team that earned the newspaper a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. Watching this film will show you how persistence really pays off in investigative journalism.

His Girl Friday

This film comes highly recommended by our news editor Lauren Finch. I haven't watched it yet, but plan to soon. IMBD informs me that in His Girl Friday, a newspaper editor uses every trick in the book to keep his ace reporter ex-wife from remarrying. I included it here, hoping this 1940 American screwball comedy film will offer much-needed laughs after all my film suggestions, which are pretty serious.

Have you seen any of the movies in this list? Do you know a good journalism-related film from outside the US that I should watch? Please share it in the comments!

Also, in case you missed last week's writing tips on social media reporting, here it is. 

9 comments

  • Loved this edition, Sahar.
    On another note, maybe we should have a GV movie club :)

  • Love the list. Spotlight was brilliant. I have a soft spot for
    All the President’s Men (Watergate), Zodiac and ‘Mille milliards de dollars’.

  • Tori

    I’ve seen all these films — I think Spotlight and His Girl Friday were my faves. Spotlight because there are no real heroes or unwarranted emotional outbursts: there’s just hard work and teamwork and mistakes. And because the haircuts weren’t good and the clothes didn’t fit. I was really moved by the work the team did and the decisions they made. His Girl Friday because I just love her. So much fun to watch.

  • Well, this is really hair-rising, dear Sahar. You see, just yesterday I was trying to remember the title of a movie starred by my all-times favorite leading man Cary Grant. Mission impossible. I asked my mom, another movie lover just as myself. The plot was simple: Cary Grant is a journalist and, I don’t remember why, he hides a prisoner who has escaped from jail. She didn’t remember either.
    Today, I read this posting and… what a surprise: His Girl Friday it is!
    I absolutely recommend you this movie, totally, as any other with unforgettable and unequaled Cary Grant (Bringing up Baby is simply wonderful).

  • Really enjoyed Shattered Glass!
    Citizen Kane is a good one too and recommended to all first-year journalism students! Another two journalism related films I personally liked are Balibo Five and City Of God ;)

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