Total Recall

14 Worth-Watching Hollywood Takes on the News

With Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues hitting theaters this week, we take a closer look at some of cinmea's most memorable newshounds.

by | December 20, 2013 | Comments

NewspeopleAfter nearly a decade of begging and what seems like another 10 years of its full-on promotional campaign, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues finally arrives in theaters this weekend, offering fans of improv-heavy, absurdist comedy an early Christmas gift with another 119 minutes of idiot newsman Ron Burgundy (Will Ferrell) and his posse of equally dim-witted friends. In honor of Ron’s return, we decided to take a look back at some other movies revolving around journalists — and while none of them include chocolate squirrels or baby sharks, they’re all well worth watching in their own right. Stay classy, ’cause it’s time for Total Recall!

Absence of Malice (1981) 81%

Media-bashing has become so trendy that you’d almost never know that being part of the Fourth Estate was once regarded as an honorable profession — a public service, even. Of course, that isn’t to say reporters haven’t always been dogged by questions of ethics — and few directors were better at framing a thorny ethical debate than Sydney Pollack, which made him the perfect person to guide the cameras for Absence of Malice, starring Paul Newman as the son of a Mafia boss who is outed as the subject of a murder investigation by an ambitious (and somewhat scruple-deficient) reporter played by Sally Field. Though a large number of critics felt Pollack and screenwriter Kurt Luedtke failed to present a truly compelling picture — and some, like Dennis Schwartz of Ozus’ World Movie Reviews, dismissed it as a “well-meaning liberal message story” — others praised its strong performances and overall intelligence. As James Rocchi wrote, “the ultimate conclusion of the film will leave you thoughtful and even perhaps a touch sad — rare for any film, and even more rare for a thriller.”

All the President's Men (1976) 94%

Generations of journalists were spawned by the intrepid investigative reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, the two Washington Post writers whose dogged pursuit of the Watergate scandal helped fell Richard Nixon’s corrupt administration. Two years after we didn’t have Dick to kick around anymore, screenwriter William Goldman and director Alan J. Pakula collaborated to produce All the President’s Men, a dramatization of Woodward and Bernstein’s book about the case — and thanks in part to an ace ensemble that included Robert Redford as Woodward, Dustin Hoffman as Bernstein, and a roster of supporting players rounded out by Jason Robards, Jack Warden, and Hal Holbrook, it ended up becoming a huge (and Academy Award-winning) hit. “A finer political film you will not find,” declared Cinema Sight’s Wesley Lovell. “It should be declared a national treasure.”

Broadcast News (1987) 98%

Funny, smart, and impeccably cast, Broadcast News might be the prototypical James L. Brooks movie: razor-sharp in terms of its personal insights as well as its broader social statements regarding the massive changes afoot in the television news landscape during the 1980s, it prompted gut-busting laughs while sneaking in thought-provoking (not to mention startlingly prescient) messages, all delivered by a packed roster of brilliantly talented actors that included William Hurt, Holly Hunter, Joan Cusack, and Albert Brooks. “Broadcast News has a lot of interesting things to say about television,” pointed out Roger Ebert, “But the thing it does best is look into a certain kind of personality and a certain kind of relationship.”

Citizen Kane (1941) 99%

Before the internet came along and turned everything into a circus, a sufficiently motivated person could bootstrap his way into media-magnate riches. Why, just look at Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, which uses the life of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst as the inspiration for a finely florid saga about wealth, corruption, insanity, and the quest for lost innocence. Unlike a lot of movies on this list, Kane doesn’t have much to do with the news, but since it’s widely regarded as the finest film ever made, we figured we’d make an exception. As Richard Brody of the New Yorker told it, it’s “An ecstasy of light and shadow, of clashing textures and graphic forms, such as hadn’t been seen since the silent era.”

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) 93%

For his second directorial effort, George Clooney took a surprising turn, dramatizing the efforts of legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow to thwart Joseph McCarthy’s Communist witch hunt. Inspired by the increasingly vituperative political atmosphere of the early aughts, Clooney laid more than his career capital on the line for Good Night, and Good Luck — not only did he forsake his usual salary, collecting a dollar apiece for his directorial, screenwriting, and starring roles, but he also went so far as to mortgage his home as collateral. (Well, one of his homes, anyway. But still.) This black-and-white plea for journalistic ethics was a film out of time in the 24-hour cable news era, even with a stellar cast that included Clooney, David Strathairn, Robert Downey, Jr., Patricia Clarkson, and Frank Langella — but it still had enough Luck to rack up six Academy Award nominations and an impressive $54 million worldwide gross, not to mention raves from critics like the Daily Mirror’s David Edwards, who wrote, “George Clooney is emerging as one of America’s bravest, boldest filmmakers. And with this highly-charged political thriller, he’s also emerging as one of its very best.”

Groundhog Day (1993) 97%

For a modest little comedy that failed to break $100 million at the box office during its theatrical run, Groundhog Day has done pretty well for itself in the 15 years since its release: It’s been added to the United States Film Registry, ranked in the top 40 of the AFI and Bravo “100 Funniest Movies” lists, the top 10 of AFI’s fantasy list, and lauded by Roger Ebert in his “Great Movies” series. Starring a perfectly caustic Bill Murray as a miserable newscaster who falls into a time loop that forces him to relive Groundhog Day — and, of course, learn something about himself in the process, although not before using his newfound awareness of the future in all sorts of brilliantly funny ways — the movie was a sizable box office hit whose pop culture cachet has only grown over the last 20 years, to the point that the annual tradition might now be more closely associated with Murray than Punxsutawney Phil. And for good reason: it remains one of his funniest, most finely tuned performances. In the words of TIME’s Richard Corliss, he “makes the movie a comic time warp that anyone should be happy to get stuck in.”

His Girl Friday (1940) 99%

Who has time for the news when there’s witty banter to be bantered? Let’s ask His Girl Friday, starring Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell as a pair of wisecracking reporters (and ex-spouses) whose complicated relationship is put to the test by a hot story — right on the eve of Russell’s impending wedding. Future filmmakers attempted to use director Howard Hawks’ effervescent template as a blueprint for remakes, to no avail; there’s simply no substitute for the real thing. As Joshua Rothkopf wrote for Time Out New York, “One is tempted to throw away any semblance of persuasion and simply demand that you go see this movie.”

The Insider (1999) 96%

Russell Crowe picked up his first Best Actor Oscar nomination for his work in this Michael Mann film, which dramatizes the real-life story of Jeffrey Wigand (played by Crowe), the tobacco executive whose willingness to speak the truth about his industry’s unsavory activities helped lead to a massive financial settlement — and some rather incredible behind-the-scenes drama at CBS News, where a 60 Minutes report on Wigand was temporarily silenced despite the best efforts of producer Lowell Bergman (Al Pacino). As you might imagine, neither Wigand nor Bergman ended up terribly popular with their superiors, and some of the same interests that fought to keep their story silenced also worked to blunt The Insider‘s commercial prospects; in fact, in some cities, Wigand’s former employer sent representatives to screenings of the film to hand out cards directing filmgoers to an 800 number providing a more company-friendly spin on the story. For whatever reason, The Insider never really caught on with audiences, but it was a critical and awards season favorite, netting no fewer than seven Academy Award nominations. Not bad for a movie that, as more than one critic pointed out, spent two and a half hours talking about tobacco. As Andrew Sarris put it in his review for the New York Observer, “What I didn’t expect was an intelligently absorbing entertainment that ran for two hours and 40 minutes, during which I didn’t once look at my watch — just about the highest praise I can bestow upon a film these days.”

It Happened One Night (1934) 98%

Frank Capra, Clark Gable, and Claudette Colbert — what else do you need? Academy voters of 1934 didn’t want much more than It Happened One Night, awarding this whip-smart screwball comedy all five of the year’s major Oscars. To modern viewers, the plot’s framework — which tosses together a gruff reporter (Gable) and a spoiled heiress (Colbert) on the run from her domineering father (Walter Connolly) — might seem like pretty boilerplate stuff, but you don’t need a high concept when you’re dealing with wit this sharp. And if its ingredients look familiar now, it’s because Night‘s been imitated so often; as James Berardinelli opined for ReelViews, “Its opposites-attract melding of screwball comedy and the road trip elements has become one of about a half-dozen standard love story formulas. Most years, there’s at least one theatrical release that owes a debt to this film.”

The Killing Fields (1984) 93%

Roland Joffé’s The Killing Fields relays the heartrending true story of the friendship between three journalists — Cambodian Dith Pran (Haing S. Nor), American Sydney Schanberg (Sam Waterston), and British Jon Swain (Julian Sands) — during the early days of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia. John Malkovich co-stars in the supporting role of American photojournalist Al Rockoff, who was part of the unsuccessful effort to get Pran out of Cambodia before the regime change; the real-life Rockoff was publicly unhappy with the way he was portrayed, but he was part of a small minority — The Killing Fields was ultimately nominated for seven Oscars, and it became an instant critical favorite. “It must be nerve-racking for the producers to offer a tale so lacking in standard melodramatic satisfactions,” wrote Time’s Richard Schickel, “But the result is worth it, for this is the clearest film statement yet on how the nature of heroism has changed in this totalitarian century.”

Network (1976) 92%

Much as many of our favorite television pundits like to argue that we’re living in one of the medium’s great golden ages, there’s no denying that wide swaths of the dial have been abandoned and given over to lowest-common-denominator fare. But long before anyone started worrying about trashy talk shows or “reality” TV, screenwriter Paddy Chayevsky had an inkling of the dystopian landscape looming on the horizon — and the result was 1976’s Network, a bitingly bitter satire about a veteran news anchor (Peter Finch) whose unorthodox response to being fired serves as the unintended catalyst for a new era of ever-more-provocative nightly news. “One would assume that a 1976 film about network television would feel dated today,” admitted Forrest Hartman of the Reno Gazette-Journal, “but director Sidney Lumet and screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky had such a fine concept that Network seems downright contemporary.”

The Paper (1994) 88%

Director Ron Howard reunited with his Night Shift star, Michael Keaton, for a very different kind of project in 1994: The Paper, an ensemble dramedy about the frantic goings-on behind the scenes during 24 hours in the life of a New York City newspaper. While things have changed drastically for the publishing industry in the years since The Paper‘s release, rendering the movie’s backdrop rather quaint, the sharp writing (from brothers David and Stephen Koepp) and rock-solid acting — rounded out by a showy cast that also included Robert Duvall, Glenn Close, Jason Robards, and Marisa Tomei — are timeless. “Howard, after stumbling with Far and Away, is back in form, and perhaps at the top of his game,” enthused Chris Hicks for the Deseret News. “There are times when the sheer size of the film seems enough to throw it off the track, but Howard manages, for the most part, to keep things rolling along in his usual slick, if sometimes obvious fashion.”

Reds (1981) 90%

An epic 194-minute biopic about the tortured affair between radical journalists John Reed (Warren Beatty) and Louise Bryan (Diane Keaton) during the early 20th century, set against the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, Reds wasn’t exactly the most commercially friendly film of 1981 — but thanks to positive word of mouth and a stellar cast that also included Jack Nicholson, Paul Sorvino, Gene Hackman, and M. Emmet Walsh, it ended up grossing more than $50 million during its theatrical run, on the way to picking up three Academy Awards (against a dozen nominations). Calling it “Political drama and sweeping romance in one,” Carol Cling of the Las Vegas Review-Journal marveled, “Only Warren Beatty would, or could, do it.”

Wag the Dog (1997) 86%

We know how great television is at creating images that seem so real we can’t help but believe them in the moment, which makes it the perfect tool for ginning up a distraction — like, say, a fake war — in order to distract American voters from a budding scandal in the Oval Office. That’s the idea behind Wag the Dog, adapted from the Larry Beinhart novel about a commander-in-chief (Michael Belson) whose unfortunate appetite for underage girls leads him to hire a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) who enlists a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to whip up a staged conflict in Albania. It seemed a little outlandish at the time, but real-life events would quickly conspire to make Wag seem positively prescient. “Between the laughs,” observed the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle, “there are moments that ring so true they can raise goosebumps.”

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