Every year the AFI theater in Silver Spring puts on a “DC Noir” film festival, because they are wonderful people who should be rewarded with cake. This year they screened the super-timely “Deadline – USA,” in which Humphrey Bogart runs a New York newspaper which is about to be bought and destroyed by a rival. There are a lot of fun old-fashioned touches–this is also one of those “remarrying your ex-wife” stories, for example–but it’s especially interesting to see how the movie portrays both the work and the romance of journalism.
First, there really is romance. This is a much more heroic view of journalists than my beloved “Five Star Final.” (You can tell from the casting, really, Bogart vs. Edward G. Robinson and Boris Karloff.) “Deadline – USA” presents crusading journalists out to take down a corrupt administration, with lots of speechifying and more than a touch of self-congratulation.
There’s definitely some eating of the cake and having it too. The demi-idealistic editor of The Day gets to slam scandal sheets which publish tacky photos of a fur-clad blonde corpse, but that low-rent story turns out to be part of a very sexy political-corruption scandal, so The Day gets to report on it too! This is an implicit admission that audiences–movie audiences–prefer “furry blondes” to green eyeshades. I bet Tim Carney wishes he could douse his reports on the collusion of corporations and politicians in some attention-grabbing sleaze.
Speaking of numbers, there’s a very nice moment when Bogart chastises one of his reporters for using numbers that are too big and too abstract. “What does this mean for the housewife? How much more will her grocery bill be?” That reminder to help people understand and visualize the numbers is one of the many, many terrific pieces of advice in the best journalism guide I’ve read, The Art and Craft of Feature Writing.
“Deadline – USA” shows actual reporting, unlike a lot of lazier hero-journalist narratives, although it also strongly suggests that reporting was easier when editors kept whiskey in their desks! And when they could use physical intimidation, which I hear is frowned on these days.
The movie is actually caught at an in-between stage of mythmaking. It still bears the traces of earlier, sleazier, more cynical narratives like “Five Star Final,” and it has a real cheap glamour. But we’re definitely on our way to the noble-journalist iconography of “All the President’s Men,” which eventually degenerates into mere Sorkinism.
I don’t mean to denigrate the heroic school entirely. We need stories about how people can do important things well, and they’re fun to watch. It’s good to glamorize competence in the service of truth and the public interest, as long as a) you keep the self-congratulation to a minimum–I think “All the President’s Men” does this really well, actually; and b) there are other available narratives, so that one profession doesn’t gain an undeserved air of affronted purity.
For decades mainstream journalists have told themselves a narrative in which their profession Speaks Truth to Power, stands alone against the vampires, etc etc, when of course it is extraordinarily easy for mainstream journalists to cocoon themselves so thoroughly in congenial opinion that they never even notice the degree to which they truckle to politicians or miss stories whose implications would cut against their political beliefs. When Edward G. Robinson played our editor he didn’t even have a comfy cocoon inside his own skull! Let alone in the grasping, naked city.