Will there ever be another great journalism film? Given the chaos in both movies and the news media—audiences polarized, anonymous sourcing resurgent, Twitter rampant, prevailing narratives debunked (or not)—the temptation is to say, no, probably not.
But common sense says the next great media movie is bound to happen, sooner or later. And when it does, that film will probably look a lot more like Absence Of Malice than All The President’s Men.
Other films—Broadcast News, Network, The Insider, Shattered Glass, Truth, to name a few—have taken a serious cut at journalism in the years since classics like The Front Page, Citizen Kane, and The Sweet Smell Of Success put a framework around the genre.
But no movies in the last half-century have better defined inherent polarities in journalism—good reporter/bad reporter, fearless investigator/flawed newshound, bearer of truth/purveyor of damaging falsehood—than those two dramas, Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men, from 1976, and Sydney Pollack’s Absence Of Malice, released five years later.
Thanks to an alignment of their stars, Robert Redford playing the Nixon-hunting Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in All The President’s Men, and Paul Newman portraying the press-victimized liquor wholesaler Michael Gallagher in Absence Of Malice, the films had an unintended kinship. Redford and Newman had enjoyed two of their greatest successes together, The Sting and Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid. Both pictures were directed by George Roy Hill, who developed the Absence Of Malice with the newsman-turned-screenwriter Kurt Luedtke. In 1985, Luedtke would get credit for adapting Pollack’s Out Of Africa, another hit for Redford. In between, Newman and Sally Field scored with Absence, which had three Oscar nominations, including Best Actor–and which reflected some of Newman’s own views about the sins of over-reaching journalists.
Reporters of a certain age, and I am one, were inspired by All The President’s Men. We saw ourselves as Woodwards and Bernsteins in the making—tireless, intrepid, ready to speak truth to any sort of power, just as soon as we could find a newspaper or magazine smart enough to employ us. (In my case, the breakthrough came at Forbes Magazine, where I picked up my first full-time journalistic job in 1982.)
But those who were blessed with at least a little self-awareness were scared to death by Absence Of Malice. Its story of a bright, ambitious reporter, portrayed by Field, being manipulated by a demonic federal prosecutor, played by Bob Balaban, and drawn by her editor, word-by-word, into newspaper prose that proved the text-book case of ‘accurate but not true’ was chillingly real. More so, in truth, than the blazing screen exploits of our heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, notwithstanding the authentic underpinnings of All The President’s Men.
The two most prominent recent newsroom dramas—Spotlight and The Post—were very much in the mold of All The President’s Men. They were all about journalistic nobility: The risks! The legwork! The glorious grind in dusty archives, until, finally, the suppressed truth tumbles out!
But whom are we kidding? Those were period pieces, both. (And romanticized at least a bit, though perhaps not as much as George Clooney’s Edward R. Murrow tribute Good Night, And Good Luck, from 2005.) In its current state, journalism has more to do with loud voices, talking heads, and the relentless pursuit of one or another point of view than with any dispassionate discovery of facts, which have been displaced by ‘your truth’ and ‘my truth.’
Like All The President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post were probably great recruiting tools for the communications schools. But what a new generation of reporters needs, and will almost certainly get, is the next Absence of Malice.