Streaming: the best films about journalism

Gritty drama She Said, about the two reporters who exposed Harvey Weinstein, joins newsroom classics from His Girl Friday to All the President’s Men

Around the time that Tom McCarthy’s 2015 newsroom drama Spotlight started piling up critics’ awards en route to the best picture Oscar, more than a few wags commented that film critics are not to be trusted on films that make the journalism industry look good: it’s the hand that feeds us, after all. Still, Hollywood tends to oscillate between two extremes on journalists: they’re either virtuous crusaders for truth and justice or leeching, corrupt sleazebags.

Maria Schrader’s solidly absorbing She Said (2022) takes the former stance. Its story of how New York Times reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey (studiously played by Zoe Kazan and Carey Mulligan) exposed Harvey Weinstein’s serial sexual abuse and triggered the #MeToo movement is fresh in everyone’s minds. Too fresh, perhaps, which may be why the film made few waves at the box office or with awards voters. Its pleasures lie instead in the granular, procedural depiction of how such a vast story comes together. As its heroines go knocking on doors and crossing continents in pursuit of sources – one of them played in a blistering one-scene performance by Samantha Morton – She Said becomes an ode to the enduring importance of shoe-leather reporting in an increasingly online realm.

As a factual portrayal of honourable, high-stakes and history-making journalism, She Said aspires to the status of films such as All the President’s Men (1976) and the aforementioned Spotlight. Its restrained approach is closer to Spotlight’s humane, methodical and ultimately very moving account of the Boston Globe’s gradual uncovering of Catholic church abuses. All the President’s Men, energised by Alan J Pakula’s cool, brisk direction and the frazzled star quality of Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as intrepid Watergate scoopers Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, treats investigative journalism as nail-biting thriller material – still the gold standard to which all such films aspire.

Meryl Streep, right, with Tom Hanks in The Post.
‘Imperious’ Meryl Streep, right, with Tom Hanks in The Post. Allstar Photograph: DREAMWORKS/Allstar

Pakula’s film got a belated companion piece of sorts in Steven Spielberg’s earnest, efficient The Post (2018), which examines the breaking of the same story from the perspective of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (an imperious Meryl Streep). If it’s unlikely to become an equivalent classic, that partly speaks to what side of journalism we tend to find more compelling. And I can hardly not mention the gripping, old-school whistleblower thriller Official Secrets (2019), which pivots on the Observer’s publication of a leaked memo detailing illegal British intelligence activity toward the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

I’m most riveted, however, when journalism stories get a little messy: such as David Fincher’s masterly Zodiac (2007), full of labyrinthine cul-de-sacs and obsessive psychodrama in its depiction of the police force and the San Francisco Chronicle’s thwarted efforts to unmask the infamous Zodiac killer. Or 2003’s Shattered Glass, with Hayden Christensen and a tremendous Peter Sarsgaard in a tight, claustrophobic dramatisation of young hotshot writer Stephen Glass’s downfall over fabricating stories.

Susan Harrison and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success.
To the dark side… Susan Harrison and Burt Lancaster in Sweet Smell of Success. Allstar Photograph: Blue Dolphin/Allstar

In fictional journalism tales, the moral conflicts get darker still, never more viciously than in Alexander Mackendrick’s still-resonant 1957 drama Sweet Smell of Success, about the toxic complicity between Burt Lancaster’s powerful muckraking columnist and his parasitic agent, played by Tony Curtis. Or, from the same decade, Billy Wilder’s superbly caustic Ace in the Hole (1951), with a brilliantly seamy Kirk Douglas as a disgraced reporter trying to reclaim the ladder. Hovering between fact and fiction, of course, is the redoubtable Citizen Kane (1941; free on BBC iPlayer), Orson Welles’s splintered portrait of a newspaper magnate inspired by William Randolph Hearst – surely the most epic-scale study ever afforded the business.

Anjelica Bette Fellini, Bill Murray and Elisabeth Moss in The French Dispatch.
Anjelica Bette Fellini, Bill Murray and Elisabeth Moss in Wes Anderson’s ‘hyper-precious’ The French Dispatch. Searchlight Pictures Photograph: ©Searchlight Pictures

On the cheerier side, the cut-and-thrust of the newsroom dictates the pace of Lewis Milestone’s delicious screwball farce The Front Page (1931) and its even better remake, 1940’s His Girl Friday – the breathlessly paced dialogue of which misled generations into thinking reporters are much quicker, funnier and sexier than they are. A bouncy all-star comedy built around a day in the life of a newspaper editor, Ron Howard’s The Paper (1994) isn’t as flattering, though it’s scarcely more realistic. Of course, if it’s aspirational journalistic fantasy you’re after, look no further than Wes Anderson’s hyper-precious The French Dispatch (2021), in which laid-back expat journalists cycle around French villages, bed their alluring subjects and swan around in perfectly coordinated smart-casualwear. We can but dream.

All titles are available to rent on multiple platforms unless specified.

Also new on streaming and DVD

The Silent Twins
What could have been a standard TV-style tragibiopic, based on the profoundly sad story of institutionalised twin writers June and Jennifer Gibbons, is made vibrant and surprising by the restless visual imagination of Polish director Agnieszka Smoczynska and the soulfully entwined performances of Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance.

Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in The Silent Twins.
Letitia Wright and Tamara Lawrance in The Silent Twins. Focus Features Photograph: Łukasz Bąk/Focus Features

Dead for a Dollar
Veteran genre director Walter Hill returns with a gnarly old-school western with no pretensions above its B-movie station, which is just fine. Following Christoph Waltz’s grizzled bounty hunter on an increasingly fraught search-and-rescue mission, it’s a little scruffy, but Hill, now 83, can still orchestrate an action sequence with the best of them.

Tori and Lokita
Belgium’s Dardenne brothers bring their characteristic empathy and pared-back naturalism to bear on this affecting study of two young African refugees trying to forge a new life for themselves in Europe, but the characterisation is flatter, and the plotting a little more schematic, than in their very best films.

Quietly hypnotic and playfully cerebral, Swiss director Cyril Schäublin’s peculiar period piece was one of last year’s most revelatory festival discoveries, though it never made it to cinemas. Charting a 19th-century anarchist uprising in the unlikely context of the Swiss watchmaking industry, it balances wry wit with chewy political ideas.

• This article was amended on 10 March 2023 because an earlier version referred to “Ernst Lubitsch’s The Front Page (1931)”. The film was directed by Lewis Milestone.


Guy Lodge

The GuardianTramp

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