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Clark Kent vs. the Flying Nun: Editor picks best journalism movies of all time

By by chris cobler/ccobler@vicad.com
Dec. 14, 2011 at 6:14 a.m.
Updated Feb. 1, 2012 at 8:02 p.m.


In the good ol' days, reporters always played the hero.

Think Superman. Sure, his super powers still didn't make him much of a reporter, but Clark Kent was no lawyer or used car salesman, for goodness sake. These days, the public - and Hollywood - generally lump reporters into the category of snake oil salesman.

Journalists make great movie heroes because they're always in search of the story. They propel the narrative forward, push the action, seek truth, justice and the American way. Even Peter Parker, a newspaper photographer, knows that with "great power comes great responsibility."

That's a terrific motto for journalists, also known as the Fourth Estate. We're supposed to provide the final check and balance for the three-legged stool of democracy: our legislative, executive and judicial branches of government.

"The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo," which opens nationally Dec. 21, puts a reporter back in the role of hero. The hero is even played by James Bond, aka Daniel Craig, so that's a promising start.

The trilogy of novels, by Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson, goes into great detail about how a journalist works. For example, Larsson spends many pages on the challenges of investigative financial reporting. The latter topic doesn't exactly light up Hollywood, though, so be prepared instead for a dark movie about a reporter chasing a girl's killer.

Reality check: Reporters almost never have the help of tattooed women with Asperger's syndrome and an incredible ability to hack into any computer.

Hollywood rarely captures the essence of any job. After all, how exciting would it be to show reporters waiting to get a call returned or filing an open-records request?

While waiting to see how well "Dragon Tattoo" represents journalism, check out my list of the best movies about journalism:

1."The Paper" (1994) - This day in the life of an editor perfectly captures the chaos and irreverence of a newsroom.

Why else? A marvelous ensemble cast of Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei, Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Randy Quaid and Jason Alexander.

Bonus points: We were expecting our first child when the movie came out in '94; my wife, like Tomei's character, was a reporter. Parenting and daily deadlines don't always play well together.

2."All the President's Men" (1976) - Two Washington Post reporters bring down the most powerful man in the free world.

Why else? A great lesson in democracy - should be required viewing in all schools.

Bonus points: Reporters don't look like Robert Redford, but he and Dustin Hoffman even showed how journalists work the phone and develop sources.

Editor's soapbox: Watergate shook our faith in all institutions, including the Fourth Estate, leading, ironically enough, to 30 years of newspaper bashing. Only five years later, Hollywood produced one of the worst journalism movies, "Absence of Malice," in which Sally Field blows by ethical questions faster than a flying nun.

3. "The Year of Living Dangerously" (1982) - A foreign correspondent finds love and moral ambiguity chasing the big story.

Why else? Reminds us Mel Gibson used to make good movies. Sigourney Weaver and Linda Hunter are stellar, too.

Bonus points: Linda Hunter's haunting words, "What, then, must we do?" All journalists have wondered at times whether even an important story will make any difference.

4."Citizen Kane" (1941) - This one makes most lists of best movies of all time, not just about journalism.

Why else? People inaccurately throw around the term "yellow journalism," but this history lesson shows how William Randolph Hearst built his empire on shaky ethical ground.

Bonus points: Despite this movie's bleak view of journalism, most other movies of the period looked favorably on journalists. Check out "It Happened One Night,""His Girl Friday" and "The Front Page."

5."Fletch," (1985) - I ran out of movies that even remotely portray journalism accurately, so let's go with just plain side-splittingly funny.

Why else? No other reason, - just Chevy Chase's one-liners: "Can I borrow your towel a sec? My car just hit a water buffalo."

Bonus points: "Are you always this forward?"

"Only with wet, married women."

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