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Movie Journalists: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Movie Journalists: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

Articles - Acting

In David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, out in theaters today, Daniel Craig plays Mikael Blomkvist, a journalist who enlists the help of computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) in his search for the truth behind a long-missing woman’s disappearance. Those who’ve seen the trailer (or read the book, or seen Danish director Niels Arden Oplev’s earlier film adaptation) know that, in the midst of his exploration into the past, Blomkvist gets involved in some things they probably didn’t prepare him for in journalism school. In honor of the cinematic journalists—some good at what they do, some, er, not—from years past, MM presents our retrospective of movie journalists: The good, the bad and the ugly.

The Good
Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford), All the President’s Men (1976)
directed by Alan J. Pakula

In this based-on-a-true-story classic, Woodward and Bernstein, journalists for The Washington Post, don’t have the most glamorous job in the world—there’s no schmoozing with senators or being taken out to dinner by lobbyists. In fact, to an outside observer, their job looks downright boring. There’s a lot of calling potential sources to set up interviews, dealing with reticent interviewees who won’t go on record, checking facts and—horror of horrors—looking up phone numbers in an actual phone book (how did journalists in the pre-Internet age do it?). It’s tough work, but it got the job done—they did manage to expose the Watergate scandal and take down President Nixon, after all.

Rita Skeeter (Miranda Richardson), Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005)
directed by Mike Newell

Good human being? No. Good journalist? No. Good tabloid journalist? Heck, yes. She may be manipulative, opportunistic, ruthless and completely lacking in anything resembling journalistic integrity, but when it comes to digging up dirt on celebs (here, Harry Potter) for a tell-all, muckraking exposé, The Daily Prophet’s Skeeter is the one to call. OK, most of what she writes are blatant lies, but when you work for the wizarding equivalent of TMZ, is that really relevant?

The Bad
Macaulay “Mike” Connor (James Stewart), The Philadelphia Story (1940)
directed by George Cukor

Conventional wisdom dictates that there are a few things that aren’t kosher for journalists to do while gathering information for a story. Threatening potential sources with bodily harm, for example. Offering to pay large sums of money in exhange for information. Or falling in love with the person you’ve been assigned to write a story about, as it tends to cloud ones journalistic objectivity. As the tabloid journalist assigned to cover the impending nuptials of Tracy Lord (Katharine Hepburn), an old-money socialite, and George Kittredge (John Howard), a nouveau riche coal mining tycoon, Mike doesn’t commit the first two offenses, but he sure does flirt with the last. In fact, when a suspected affair between him and Tracy ends with the bride-to-be breaking off her engagement mere minutes before the wedding, Mike does the chivalrous (or opportunistic, depending on how you look at it) thing and offers to marry her himself. She declines, electing to marry her ex-husband Dexter (Cary Grant) instead, but it’s probably all for the best: Mike’s boss might have frowned upon him ending up as the groom in the wedding he was supposed to be writing a tell-all exposé about.

Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.), Zodiac (2007)
directed by David Fincher

In his decade-plus quest to uncover the identity of the notorious Zodiac killer, Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal), a political cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle, helps the police uncover evidence, interviews witnesses, ventures into the basement of a seriously creepy informant and, in general, does a whole lot of investigative work that he never gets paid for. Paul Avery, the Chronicle’s crime reporter and the man in charge of the newspaper’s coverage of the Zodiac killer, starts out assisting Graysmith in his freelance crime-fighting but eventually quits his job and ends up drunk and living on a houseboat. While it’s true that uncovering the Zodiac killer’s identity is more the jurisdiction of the police than the Chronicle staff, Avery’s addiction to drugs and alcohol probably didn’t help him with the other aspects of a journalist’s job… returning messages, talking to sources, that sort of thing. Plus, when Graysmith approaches Avery about writing a book about the Zodiac killer—his extensive knowledge of the case makes him a perfect candidate—he refuses on the ground that he “lost” all the files. A reporter who won’t write a book about his most high-profile gig? Now that’s a bad journalist.

The Ugly
Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998)
directed by Terry Gilliam

Where to start? Duke, a sports journalist, is assigned to cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race in Las Vegas, Nevada. To be fair, he does show up to the race, albeit while suffering from the results of a fairly intense acid trip from the previous day. While there, he suffers from psychotic hallucinations, fires his photographer and leaves before the race finishes. What with all the drug trips, inadvertent kidnappings and bouts of public drunkenness, the odds that Duke ever actually wrote a word of what he was sent to Las Vegas to report on hover in the single digits. Of course, seeing as Duke is a thinly-veiled version of legendary gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, who wrote Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, it’s safe to assume his journalism career ended up alright.

Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore), Never Been Kissed (1999)
directed by Raja Gosnell

This ‘90s-era romcom is devoid of all the drugs, alcohol and violence present in Fear and Loathing, but main character Josie Geller—who infiltrates her old high school as a student to gain material for a story about modern-day teenagers—goes past “bad journalist” into full-on “ugly journalist” territory when she describes her burgeoning romantic relationship with English teacher Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan) in her finished article. That seems pretty innocuous… except this “burgeoning romantic relationship” is between Coulson and one of his students, and while 25-year-old Josie isn’t really underage, she sure let her potential paramour think she was. Yeah, that doesn’t look good. Romantic comedies aren’t exactly known for consistency of plot, but in the real world, someone like Coulson would probably have a hard time finding another teaching job (or avoiding social ostracism) ever again. Thanks, Josie Geller.

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