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Journalism isn't just about good writing. Arguably, it's barely about good writing at all—though that is an important part of it (I mean, even the most fascinating stories can be ruined by bad writing). But one of the most important tenets of journalism is truth. Sometimes, that's as easy as reporting the facts in front of you. But sometimes, the search for truth leads journalists to dark, perilous, or simply shocking information.
So it stands to reason that investigative journalism movies would have the appeal they do. While there are some great investigative podcasts out there, there's something extra thrilling about a movie. Watching dedicated, sharp, even heroic men and women uncover secrets, compile information, and ultimately report the best truth they can—or, fail to do so—is as thrilling as any spy movie.
All The President's Men
One of the most iconic scandals in US history, and two of the most iconic actors, makes for an equally iconic film. For investigative journalism movies, All the President's Men is the one to live up to—and not only for its fine acting and directing.
This film, produced by Robert Redford and directed by Alan J. Pakula, chronicles the investigation done by the Washington Post into the Watergate scandal. It's based on the non-fiction book of the same name, authored by two of the Post's journalists at the time, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, portrayed by Redford and Hoffman in the film.
All the Presidents Men was written only a couple of years after the events, and the film only two years after that. Woodward and Bernstein were consulted for much of the film, which strove for accuracy over drama, effectively achieving both.
In fact, All the President's Men is lauded as one of history's most accurate film portrayals, hewing closely to the precise events detailed by the actual investigating reporters that it portrays.
In 1998, Stephen Glass was a hotshot journalist for the New Republic, his talent as a writer and investigator promising him a successful career in journalism.
But by 2003, Glass himself would be the big story.
Shattered Glass is his story, but its also a story about the newsroom, and the journalists and editors involved in the affair. Glass, played by Hayden Christensen, rises quickly to popularity in the office, surpassing many co-workers in his success and charming nearly everyone around him—including editor Michael Kelly, who would defend him against claims of false reporting. But when Adam Penenberg (played be Steve Zahn), a reporter from Forbes, attempts to follow up on one of Glass's most popular —and sensational—stories, things begin to fall apart.
Between Penenberg's investigation and the TNR's new editor Charles Lane (Peter Sarsgaard), Glass' fabrications slowly come to light. Shattered Glass is not just an investigative journalism movie—it's a movie about the investigation into journalism itself.
Spotlight is an example of investigative journalism movies at their finest. Part of its incredible success and impact is of course the scope of the investigation and report in question, which uncovers not only the sexual abuse committed by a couple of high-standing members of the Catholic church, but also the massive conspiratorial co-operation to cover up such crimes.
The film follows the team that investigated and ran this story at The Boston Globe. It features brilliant performances by Michael Keaton as Globe editor Walter Robinson, as well as Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James as the investigative team on the ground.
Spotlight covers every aspect of an investigation and report of this magnitude—we get to see the reporters struggle to find witnesses and documents, long hidden by time, corruption, and fear, as well as consider the ethical ramifications of their reporting. How far is too far to go to get the truth?
Ace in the Hole
Kirk Douglas's role as a hard-boiled, sneering reporter in Ace in the Hole is not one of a hero. It is not the story of journalists investigating corruption, but rather of creating it.
Douglas' character, Charles Tatum, arrives at the scene of a frightening tragedy with a single-minded callousness, thinking only of the headlines and of cornering the story for himself. He stumbles across a man trapped in a silver mine, and inserts himself forcefully into the rescue attempts in order to get his story. But even that isn't enough for him, as he helps escalate the situation into a genuine media circus.
But Ace in the Hole isn't just a movie about a crooked reporter and some of the worst investigation mistakes ever made—it's about the role of the public as rampant consumers that fuels this kind of corrupt reporting.
Everyone knows about the Zodiac Killer, one of the serial killers who has never been caught and terrorized Northern California for years before suddenly disappearing. He was never caught.
Zodiac is about the people who couldn't let the case go. Investigative journalism movie meets police investigation movie, David Fincher's take on the massive case focuses on two main players: Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), an editorial cartoonist at a local paper, and David Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), one of the lead investigators into the case.
When the crimes begin, and the killer contacts the police and newspapers with clues and puzzles, the entire state is in a frenzy—police, reporters, and the public can talk of nothing else. But when the killings and clues stop, and no new leads arise, the investigation dies out. Even Toschi, though tortured by the case, eventually seemed to give up.
But like a dog with a bone, Graysmith pursues the clues handed to the public and to the police with single-minded obsession. Though his connection to the case is tenuous at best—a cartoonist for the paper contacted by the killer—his dedication, fascination, and attention to detail begin him on his own investigation, eventually teaming with Toschi to continue an investigation that others had long deemed dead.
There's little debate that Citizen Kane is one of the best movies ever created. It's analyzed in film classes all over the world, and discussed over dinner tables and drinks. And it's for good reason.
Citizen Kane, on the surface, is about the investigation into the meaning of a dying man's last words. But through the eyes of this investigation, we see that man's life. And life of Charles Kane is one that shaped history.
The film is in part on the life of media magnate William Randolph Hearst, who grew the country's largest newspaper and magazine chain, and in so doing altered the way that journalism was done.
The Post is about war between the press and the government, the media, and the White House. It's also about the meaning of free speech and freedom of the press, and nature of secrets.
The medium for all of this is the story of the Pentagon Papers, a collection of classified documents indicating that the government had lied to the public about certain aspect of our involvement in Vietnam. A portion of these papers were released by a Pentagon staff member, Daniel Ellsberg first to the New York Times, then to the Washington Post.
The film follows the publisher of the Post, played by Meryl Streep, and her executive editor as they consider their options. The situation is fraught with political, legal, and moral considerations. They are advised not to publish on the papers, as potential legal ramifications could risk the survival of the newspaper.
The Post might be set in the 70s, but its 2017 release is no accident. Similarities between the Nixon and Trump administrations are highlighted, as well as general questions and themes of the relationship between the government, the press, and information.
Broadcast News is about a love triangle between TV broadcast co-workers Jane Craig (Holly Hunter), Aaron Altman (Albert Brooks), and Tom Grunick (William Hurt).
But, it's not. Although the love triangle plays a central role, the movie is about the newsroom, and the love affair that each of the players has with their work. Brooks and Hurt play opposite characters, one a sharp and savvy reporter that lacks charisma, the other the ultimately charismatic, camera-friendly man with, well, not much else going for him. Both men claim to love Hunter, leaving her with a choice. But is that choice between two men, or between the things they represent? Broadcast News is an inter-personal drama, but it's also a film that questions which traits are most important in the world of news media.
Good Night, and Good Luck
Many investigative journalism movies must tackle the relationship between government and press, and George Clooney's 2005 drama is no different. The central figures in Good Night, and Good Luck, most memorably Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn), are a group of reporters at odds with an increasingly caustic Senator Joseph McCarthy. As McCarthy increasingly cries "treason" against his enemies, Murrow uses his role as a popular and trusted TV and radio journalist to begin a process that would result in the Senator's downfall.
Nominated for and winner of many awards, including Best Screenplay, Clooney's ambitious project succeeds in its portrayal of the real political climate surrounding McCarthy, and the power of the news to exact change through sharp, dedicated reporting.
Although it's somewhat unclear how much Frost/Nixon really reflects the relationship between the two men, the film certainly stands tall among journalism movies, and not only for its popular topic—Richard Nixon.
If All the Presidents Men is the best movie about the Watergate scandal, Frost/Nixon is the best movie about the aftermath and the president himself. It was based on the interviews conducted by David Frost in 1977, in which Nixon discussed the Watergate scandal for the first time, after largely avoiding any public statements or appearances. Though the title may be purely descriptive, there is also a case for it as a reflection of the parallels between the two men, men who each, in their own way, needed an opportunity for redemption.
Jeffrey Wigand, played by Russell Crowe in The Insider, was responsible for one of recent history's most shocking revelation—the tobacco industry's knowledge of the dangers of their own product, and resulting complacency in an American health crisis.
But Wigand, who blew the whistle in a 60 Minutes interview, was not the end of the story. The interview was, in fact, not aired immediately, as political and corporate powers tangled in a web of conflicting interests. The Insider centers around a 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman, as he fights to release the astounding information of the former tobacco scientist.