[This week, Jenika and Alex are covering select films from the Los Angeles Film Festival. For complete coverage of the festival, make sure to check out the page for the tag “Los Angeles Film Festival.” Keep watching throughout the week as we bring you more reviews!]
I’m a godless liberal agnostic Jew, so it’s no wonder that I’m of the opinion that The New York Times is not only the most important news source in the country, but I firmly believe it’s one of the most important institutions in the free world. I constantly worry about the state of journalism in this era, with social media and crowd-sourced reporting becoming more and more the way we get our information. When the tsunami hit Japan earlier this year, even if I had cable, I wouldn’t have been checking CNN’s live coverage of it. I would have been doing exactly what I was doing: scrolling through hundreds of Twitter updates searching for information on the scale of the damage and the state of my friends in Japan. It concerns me that this is where modern journalism is at right now, and it obviously concerns Andrew Rossi, director of Page One: Inside the New York Times.
As I watched, Page One went from being a rare look at the Grey Lady’s inner workings to the most heartbreakingly relevant movie you can see this year.
Page One follows the Times for most of 2010, largely following the media desk. If it’s not obvious enough, the media desk is responsible for covering the goings on of other media outlets and companies. While the film follows the travails of several different Times employees, including former executive editor Bill Keller, our two chief points of access are Bruce Hedlam, media editor, and Bill Carr, media columnist. We see the two of them, along with other reporters, working together on stories, all amidst a series of interviews with historians and experts on the Times‘s future in an uncertain economy and an increasingly digital age rendering the traditional newspaper closer and closer to a moot, antiquated throwback. The film also takes us through a number of key journalism moments in 2010, including the WikiLeaks controversy, the NBC Universal merger with Comcast, and the bankruptcy proceedings of the Tribune Company, owner of many newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Baltimore Sun, and more.
The filmmakers manage to make a bunch of old white dudes sitting around talking about newspapers and front page content a legitimately enthralling prospect. I’m fully willing to admit that this is coming from my own personal bias as a journalism nut, but the meeting room sequences where the head editors decide what’s going on the front page (the A1 meetings, they’re called) are riveting stuff and only the tip of the iceberg. We get to see writers working with editors, usually Bill Carr and Bruce Hedlam
In a film featuring some of the most intelligent, insightful, witty people working in the industry today, Bill Carr blows them all out of the water. A former crack addict, he hits the streets and the phones with a zeal and a hardassed determination usually reserved for action heroes and certain porn stars. He’s the epitome of the classic news man, utterly unmoved by bullshit and incredibly fair-minded. People like Bill Carr are the reason that the Times is the best newspaper in the country, and Page One takes no small amount of glee in watching him absolutely shut down people that have no respect for traditional journalism. Watching Carr eviscerate a journalist from Vice Magazine who made a single trip to Africa and started talking about how modern newspapers don’t cover African genocide, in spite of decades of New York Times coverage of genocide after genocide, is one of the most satisfying moments I’ve had in a movie theater so far this year.
The film’s central thesis lies around an uncomfortable, uncertain truth: The New York Times is in serious trouble, as is all print media. More and more people get their news from television and the internet. Very few younger people read newspapers, if they’ve ever read one. The newspaper industry, from a financial standpoint, seems to be dying quickly. Most people get news from Twitter or news aggregates. I certainly know that I do. However, the crux of the problem is the following: where do those aggregates and Twitter-ers get their news from? Yep. Good old fashioned legacy media. Without the newspapers doing the actual, on the ground work, what happens to the notion of an informed democracy? Without it, the country could very well descend into chaos, Idiocracy-style. The best part is, the film gets right out and states the obvious: no one’s really sure how to fix it. The Times can still be a great source of journalism, but it’s clear that many in charge are completely uncertain how to handle the current crisis. Don’t blame them for that, though. This is a crisis that’s essentially popped up overnight, and it’s required people in the journalism industry for decades to completely rethink everything they know about news. They are hard questions with very few real answers, and the film embraces this fact.
What keeps Page One back, in a funny way, is its complete relevance. In this time, in this country, it is absolutely amazing. However, even a year from now, how will it fare? It’s either going to be a quaint throwback to an earlier, uncertain time, or a damning finger painted all over with “I told you so!” The film acknowledges this fact, in a sense, showing what uncertain, at times half-assed attempts the paper makes at relevancy and how the old-school Carr reacts to the new iPad. “You know what it’s like?,” he says. “It’s just like a newspaper.”
Page One is the single best look at modern journalism’s changing face you’re likely to find on the big screen. It is relevant to a fault, surprisingly thrilling, and damn funny. However, a lot of that humor is gallows humor, and the Times itself stands shakily with the noose.