Crusading Philippine journalist Maria Ressa once spoke of her profession using a new take on Niemöller’s familiar Holocaust piece, “First they came for the socialists… then they came for the Jews,” Ressa’s brief revision reads, “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”
News reporting, while vital to a functioning democracy, is a profession which does not, at first glance, seem very cinematic, lacking in dynamic physical activity, and involves long stretches of finicky research and paperwork. Still, over the years, a number of filmmakers have found ways to dramatise the field through the tension between inquisitive reporters supporting the needs of an informed electorate and the public figures trying to divert their efforts; and the heroism that can be found in holding the powerful to account.
Still, more drama derives from the potential corruption or misuse of the press – as found in films over the years, from Citizen Kane to Nightcrawler. Others dramatise a perceived decline in journalistic standards – such as Shattered Glass, a melodrama based on 1998 events, which reminds us of how seriously news sources once took careful fact-checking and what a disgrace a false report was seen to be. Some remarkable, entertaining and enlightening films have centred on journalism in one way or another, productions which recognise the importance, as well as the drama, behind the mundane but noble job of reporting the facts.
Below are a dozen of the best.
The 12 greatest movies about journalism:
12. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (Terry Gilliam, 1998)
Does this film even belong on the list? True, it’s mainly about Hunter S. Thompson’s unique personality and outlook, not his work; and the film, while loosely based on an actual writing assignment, largely follows Thompson, accompanied by his alleged attorney and probably imaginary companion and alter ego, ranting and hallucinating his way across Nevada. Still, Thompson’s writing is almost impossible to separate from the man himself, and Gonzo journalism is still journalism.
Director Terry Gilliam’s screenplay, adapted from Thompson’s 1971 autobiographical novel, is weirdly entertaining, as is Gilliam’s fun, edgy way of presenting the material; and along with the endless drug binges and general mayhem, it does capture the essence of Thompson’s way of seeing the world and his approach to reporting. The same could be said of an earlier, slightly less impressive effort, Where The Buffalo Roam, a 1980 quasi-biography starring Bill Murray as Thompson.
Because Thompson’s brand of ‘Gonzo’ had such an impact on reporting – and on political commentary, in particular – no collection of journalism films is quite complete without it.
11. A Thousand Cuts (Ramona Diaz, 2020)
Award-winning documentary filmmaker Ramona Diaz addresses the ‘fake news’ epidemic by way of a cautionary tale from her native Phillipines. The film examines the ways Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte manipulates the media to spread propaganda and disinformation helpful to his regime through the eyes of a small group of determined journalists who struggle to continue broadcasting through their social media outlet Rappler. The reporters continue to investigate Duterte’s policies, his actions in office, and his associations, even as revealing the truth about the president becomes increasingly risky, even life-threatening. The documentary is both a portrait of courage and an edifying but horrific archive of the decline and death of a free and factual news media by an oppressive regime.
The central figure in the film is journalist and Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa, known worldwide as a critical figure in the fight against disinformation and falsified news and co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work in that area. Ressa’s personal interviews with Duterte, from his term as city mayor to his recent election as president, are included in the footage, offering a striking view of an unapologetic dictator presented in his own words. Rappler’s efforts are followed as its reporters are restricted and threatened by the authorities, and Ressa is taken into custody, yet the film is an uplifting and inspiring portrait of journalists as heroes.
10. Writing With Fire (Rintu Thomas, Sushmit Ghosh, 2021)
This 2021 documentary by collaborators Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas was the winner of some 30 film awards during its film festival rounds, winning accolades at everything from Sundance to the Producers Guild of America. It also offers some perspective to struggling journalists, who might come to rethink the comparative difficulty of their work.
Writing With Fire deals with India’s only all-female staffed newspaper, Khabar Lahariya (‘Waves of News’). The team of Uttar Pradesh journalists are all Dalit women – also known as the ‘Untouchables’, the lowest level of the traditional Hindu caste system, and still the subject of a certain amount of disdain and even abuse. The newspaper’s staff represent varying levels of education and of relative poverty. Their identity presents unique challenges to their work as reporters, and not only in gaining access to media events or interview subjects. For example, when the newspaper decides to expand its use of technology, many of the reporters have to be trained in the use of the most basic items, such as mobile phones and audio recorders; and portable rechargers must be made available due to some of the staff having no electrical power at home.
The film follows individual reporters as they cover stories which, while often of purely local interest, have a tremendous impact on the people of the area. A collapsed road which cuts residents off from schools and medical services, a rash of gang rapes that the police refuse to investigate, and a series of deadly mining accidents caused by the mine owners’ lack of safety precautions come to the fore. Their determination to bring these matters into the public eye provides a new and valuable perspective on the purpose of journalism and what makes a story newsworthy. As the newspaper’s reach slowly expands, it begins to cover national issues, including India’s national election. At the same time, we follow the individual women working for Khabar Lahariya through their often challenging personal lives.
At a festival screening in New York City, the co-directors discussed their intentions for the film, which took a full five years to complete. They were determined to present the story from the point of view of the women staffing Khabar Lahariya rather than editorialising about their lives or their work. In the process, they have produced a documentary which rediscovers, for a global audience, the value of news journalism, particularly to those customarily excluded from it.
9. Wag The Dog (Barry Levinson, 1997)
It is now well known that wars can be helpful to politicians’ public image and that the news coverage of wars has sometimes been manipulated to that end. This 1997 satire takes those facts to their logical extreme, creating a darkly hilarious fantasy about deceiving the public. When a fictional US president encounters a scandal not long before an election, his PR man (Robert De Niro) hires a Hollywood film producer to create a suitable distraction.
Producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) assembles an elaborate “pageant”, a fake war, which is so cleverly designed using film production techniques, managed to perfectly appeal to the emotions of the viewers. The story is broadly comical and outrageous but derives a great deal of its black humour from making the situation all too plausible and the contrived news reports painfully familiar.
8. Mr Jones (Agnieszka Holland, 2019)
This biographical thriller by Agnieszka Holland is based on amazing real events, and on an intrepid reporter who broke one of the biggest and most shocking political stories of the century. In 1933, young British journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) is in Germany, reporting on the rise of the Third Reich before moving on to the Soviet Union. Through a combination of ingenuity and accident, Jones manages to escape Soviet surveillance and tour the Ukrainian countryside, where he is able to witness the carefully guarded reality of the atrocity known as the Holodomor, a man-made famine intended to force Ukrainian compliance, which killed more than three million Ukrainians. The event had been kept hidden from the world by the USSR’s complete control of the press.
The film follows Jones’ discovery of the artificial famine and his attempts to reveal the information, hindered by cautious government collaborators and by members of the European press, who either disbelieved Jones’ account, were reluctant to cause friction with Russia, or were themselves supporters of the Soviet plan. The story continues through Jones’ later work as a journalist, and his friendship with George Orwell, his experiences in the USSR reportedly inspiring Orwell’s novel Animal Farm.
Jones’ personality and dedication come across clearly, and the disturbing facts stand on their own despite a slightly muddled script. Mr Jones is a remarkable retelling of an essential piece of history and how it came very close to being hidden from the world forever.
7. Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015)
James Vanderbilt’s drama, Truth, is adapted from the book Truth and Duty, a memoir by television journalist Mary Mapes, producer of the weekly American current events programme Sixty Minutes. The film deals with the difficult issue of government interference in news reporting in a dramatisation of actual events, starring Cate Blanchett as Mapes and Robert Redford as Sixty Minutes host Dan Rather. The essential story involves a 2004 broadcast revealing that President George W. Bush had used his family’s status and connections to be excused from the requirements of military service. The programme’s staff were aggressively investigated, and both the show’s host and producer resigned as a result.
The film goes further than simply re-enacting these events. It uses the situation as a springboard for a more in-depth discussion of the need for serious investigative reporting; the reasons for the decline in this type of journalism; and the possible dire effects on a working democracy of having its press limited by political interests, just as media is becoming trivialised and losing touch even with such simple concepts as truth, facts, and reality.
6. Spotlight (Thomas McCarthy, 2015)
The scandalous cover-up of child abuse within the Roman Catholic church was made known to the public at least partly because of a 2002 exposé published by the Boston Globe. Spotlight, by talented director Thomas McCarthy, dramatises the investigation by a team of reporters, how they unearthed the carefully hidden facts, located witnesses and evidence, and made the decision to publish.
What adds to the story is the background sub-plot: a group of primarily Catholic reporters, accustomed to treating clergy with respect in the press, were somewhat traumatised by the facts that were coming to light and struggled in different ways with the decision to investigate and publish. The film also offers considerable insight into the lengthy cover-up and what made it possible, as well as including the perspective of abuse victims who offered testimony to the Globe reporters. It is a well crafted, suspenseful story, filled with insight and human interest as well as disturbing and intriguing facts.
5. Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976)
Acclaimed filmmaker Sidney Lumet’s dystopian vision of self-serving media imploding on itself produced a brilliant satire that the director once described as “a metaphor for America”. The setting is an American television network whose news programming is losing popularity.
The amoral and ambitious news producer, Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), uses every approach she can think of to improve ratings – for example, assigning a current events programme to a news reader who has had a mental breakdown because his insane on-air rant was unexpectedly popular. The station’s programming becomes increasingly bizarre and less and less connected with actual information, as the producer uses gossip, fortune-tellers, and any other theme that will catch the attention of viewers on her so-called news programming.
In a more pointed critique of the media, she also chooses to allow virtually total control of content by corporate sponsors, taking the station’s news reporting in still more disturbing directions. The entire film comes across like a serious journalist’s nightmare, but it is also funny and unfailingly entertaining. Interestingly, some of Christensen’s schemes appear far less improbable today than they would have to 1970s audiences, perhaps making the humour even darker than was originally intended.
4. Good Night, And Good Luck (George Clooney, 2005)
This film, the second feature by George Clooney, was important enough to the director that he waived his own payment as director and as an actor in order to get the film made on its limited budget. It does, in fact, address issues of some significance that Clooney, as the son of a news journalist, would be able to appreciate: the vital importance of an independent press in heading off tyranny simply by revealing its development to the general public. This dramatic film biography captures a tense period in which US news reporting was under pressure from overbearing government officials to withhold criticism and one journalist’s challenge to that pressure.
Edward R Murrow (David Strathairn) was one of mid-20th century America’s most respected journalists. Originally an acclaimed field reporter and war correspondent for CBS Radio, he was promoted when CBS expanded to television. He became a powerful voice in defence of unrestricted news reporting, most notably in the early 1950s when a nationwide anti-Communist campaign led by Senator Joseph McCarthy worked to control and censor the news. It is Murrow’s ongoing conflict with McCarthy that makes up the central plot.
Shot in black and white, in a gritty, intimate, cinema-verité style (beautifully managed by veteran cinematographer Robert Elswit), the film perfectly captures the era, including the still-emerging format of television news and the struggle to balance entertainment with accurate news reporting. It also captures the precarious state of American journalism during a time when ideology threatened the most basic principles of democracy and the rule of law. Politics of the era are represented through original news footage, including public statements by McCarthy himself.
Murrow’s personality, and his dedication to the principles of responsible journalism, come across clearly. The title phrase ‘good night, and good luck’ was Murrow’s routine conclusion to radio broadcasts while he was a war correspondent covering the London Blitz; in the 1950s post-war conflict, it takes on a special kind of irony. The accurate recreation of the look and feel of the era, aided by a letter-perfect cast, incidental ’50s music by jazz performer Dianne Reeves punctuating the film’s acts, and a thoughtful, intelligent script, brings Murrow and the ideas he stood for brilliantly to life.
3. The Post (Steven Spielberg, 2017)
The Post is another docudrama depicting conflicts between the press and the government – in this case, between the Washington Post and the administration of US President Richard Nixon. It is a luxury edition, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Meryl Streep as the Post’s iconic publisher, Katherine Graham, and Tom Hanks as editor and veteran journalist Ben Bradlee.
The news story in dispute relates to the Pentagon Papers, classified documents proving government deception concerning the war in Vietnam, leaked to the press in 1971 by military employee Daniel Ellsberg (Matthew Rhys). The Post’s management was forced to decide whether to comply with a government injunction against publishing any further Pentagon material, and it is that decision, the legal case that followed, and the ramifications for a free press and the public’s right to be informed, that make up the greater part of the storyline. The plot also touches on the complexities and mixed loyalties of political journalism and makes enjoyably sly references to publisher Graham’s challenges as the sole female in charge of an all-male newsroom. The exemplary cast and director – along with a well-crafted script by co-writers Josh Singer (Spotlight, West Wing) and producer Liz Hannah (Lee, The Girl From Plainville) – make the dramatisation suspenseful and riveting; but what gives it dramatic life is the lead actors’ success in bringing across a passionate dedication to informing the public at all costs.
2. This Is Not A Movie (Yung Chang, 2019)
This documentary by director Yung Chang examines the career of foreign correspondent Robert Fisk, defender of a free press and of truth and accuracy in news reporting, who reported from the middle east for British outlets for decades. In the process, trends in investigative journalism are examined closely through Fisk’s critical eye, providing his perspective on the alarming increase in unreliable data in news reports, the manipulation of the press by both political and corporate entities, and the future of journalism.
The film also presents Fisk’s view of the need for field reporting, journalists who are physically present as eyewitnesses to an emerging event, to give perspective and, above all, to forestall false reports. Fisk is known for taking risks in his work, such as meeting and interviewing Osama Bin Laden in 1993, and for his disdain for the impulse to dilute truthful reporting with diplomatic terminology, an attitude which won him as many critics as supporters.
Outlining the considerable dangers Fisk has encountered while reporting from unstable regions, including footage of some of his more hazardous field work, the film also follows the careful research and fact-checking involved in his past writing, which Fisk suggests is approached more casually by many outlets today, leading to a dangerous lack of reliability. The close coverage of Fisk’s often perilous work, and the sacrifices he willingly made to bring the public the truth, makes this a timely and engrossing account.
1. All The President’s Men (Alan Pakula, 1976)
This well-known drama is the predictable choice for the number one position, but perhaps with good reason. The film takes up one of the greatest political scandals of its decade, the Watergate affair (which, among other things, gave every government misstep thereafter the pointless “gate” suffix), and makes the facts and their significance both understandable and exciting. It also makes crystal clear the importance of conventional investigative reporting, without which the Nixon government’s infamous burglary and wiretapping of their political enemies, and the even more sinister facts that emerged from the cover-up, would never have been made public.
This 1976 drama by director Alan Pakula wisely takes the form of a mystery despite the audience already knowing “who done it”, following the duo of Washington Post reporters, Woodward and Bernstein, as they laboriously track down clues and witnesses, aided by the anonymous government informant nicknamed Deep Throat. Following the revelation of ‘Deep Throat’s’ identity decades later, a second film was released, less entertaining but very informative, which dramatises the background and actions of the mysterious informant: Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House, starring Liam Neeson as Felt.
The excellent script by William Goldman (The Princess Bride, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid) combines background facts with drama perfectly and maintains suspense throughout. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are excellent as the odd journalistic couple who did the groundwork that uncovered the scandal; Jason Robards great as the gruff but paternal Post editor Ben Bradlee, who wryly encourages the staff working on Watergate, “Nothing is riding on this…except the freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country.”
All The President’s Men avoids glorifying reporters, but it does make clear that the work they do is both difficult and indispensable. The newspaper staff are not seen as personally heroic; the importance is visually passed on to their tools, giving cinematic significance to typewriters, notepads, and telephones, which serve to ferret out the truth. In a clever cinematic choice, the characters are even deprived of their final-act victory: the film concludes with newspaper staff just short of solving the Watergate mystery, working doggedly at their desks, as the Post’s eventual revelations appear on-screen as teletype messages, just before the credits roll. It is the hard, necessary work of journalism that this film celebrates, not the glamour.