Celebrating Spotlight: ProPublica picks its favorite muckraking films

By Amanda Zamora
ProPublica

This weekend, the journalism world will be watching the Oscars with an unusual level of excitement and expectation. Forty years after Hollywood made journalism glamorous in All the President’s Men, the makers of Spotlight have revived a national appreciation for the kind of shoe-leather reporting that inspires newsrooms, but is rarely celebrated by the masses.

In Spotlight, the thrill of underground meetings and flowerpot signs are replaced with the painstaking chase for documents and data. Woodward and Bernstein brought a president down from his White House perch. The Spotlight team took on a Catholic hierarchy that had chosen to protect its priests instead of its people. The impact of that journalism — on behalf of the abused, the unheard, the betrayed — has moved moviegoers across the nation to their feet.

Marty Baron, now editor of The Washington Post, recalled the response that unfolded after he watched the movie premiere last year. As director Tom McCarthy called his former team to the stage, “something happened that’s rare for journalists: We received a protracted standing ovation.”

Whether Spotlight wins an Oscar or not, the movie has given us all a chance to step aside from our daily deadlines and the weight of an oft brutal campaign news cycle to celebrate the greater purpose for our work: making a difference.

To mark the occasion, we’ve compiled a special cinematic edition of our MuckReads weekly roundup. We asked the ProPublica staff to share both films that celebrate good, old-fashioned muckraking (or just journalism, in some cases), and investigative stories that are worthy of being made into film. We ended up with a pretty great list for your Oscars weekend countdown. Happy watching.

Absence of Malice (1981)

This is the anti-Spotlight, a film that deftly illustrates almost every mistake that can be made in investigative reporting, and every sin an investigative reporter can commit (up to and including sleeping with someone you are covering).  When I taught journalistic ethics, I screened this film as a final exam, posing the question, “Spot at least one important violation of journalistic ethics or practice in this film and discuss.”  Paul Newman, Sally Field and especially Wilford Brimley in a supporting role as an assistant attorney general of the U.S., give outstanding performances; Sydney Pollack directed and produced. Watch: Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Dick Tofel, ProPublica president

Ace in the Hole (1951)

In the spirit of the movie, I hereby plagiarize a bit of Wikipedia: “Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival) is a 1951 American film noir starring  Kirk Douglas as a cynical, disgraced reporter who stops at nothing to try to regain a job on a major newspaper. The story is a biting examination of the seedy relationship between the press, the news it reports and the manner in which it reports it.” Billy Wilder, Kirk Douglas. Hard to beat that duo. For reporters who want to be kept honest about what they do, shame is more effective than celebration. “Ace in the Hole” is 111 minutes of such useful shame. Watch: Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Joseph Sexton, senior editor

All the President’s Men (1976)

What would any MuckReads movie list be without this film? Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein as they investigate the Nixon administration’s attempts to cover up a break-in at the Democratic National Committee Headquarters. Watergate has now inspired generations, but the woman who led the Post newsroom through all of it particularly moved this journalist. I highly recommend reading Katharine Graham’s Personal History for another perspective on the infamous Watergate scandal, and to learn how the late publisher fielded threats from a White House that warned she might get “her tit caught in a big fat wringer.”  Watch: Amazon | iTunes

— Amanda Zamora, senior engagement editor

A Lynching at the Curve, by Ida B. Wells (1892)

Wells’ reporting tells the unfortunate and dramatic story of three men lynched because they started a successful grocery store business. The Memphis business was so successful it began to cut into the profits of a store owned by a white family. The black business owners experience repeated attacks, vandalisms and theft. They asked for police protection but were told they wouldn’t receive any because they weren’t in the agency’s jurisdiction. One night while fighting off thieves, the black business owners shot a white man. Within hours the three men and more than 100 other black men were dragged from their homes and put in jail on suspicion of being involved. A mob arrived at the jail and removed the three business owners from their cells. The three men fought the mob, but were shot dead before they could be hung. What if this story were made into film? Viola Davis would play Wells.

— Topher Sanders, reporter

Funny Farm (1988)

What makes this film great is that this New York City sports writer moves to the country to write a novel. He fails miserably, nearly gets a divorce, his life falls apart. He realizes he’ll never be novelist, but he’s a pretty good reporter. And then somehow finds a job covering local sports in God-knows-where, Vermont. It’s an uplifting movie about employment opportunities: “As a novelist, I turned out to be a pretty good sportswriter.” Watch: Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Terry Parris Jr., community editor

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005)

“Good Night, and Good Luck” is probably my favorite journalism movie for nostalgic reasons. It came out around the same time I changed my major to journalism and joined the school paper. The movie perfectly portrays journalistic ideals. It’s about speaking up and sticking to your convictions, even when (or especially when) it’s unpopular. I love the ending quote, taken from Edward R. Murrow’s real-life speech: “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it is merely wires and lights in a box.” Plus, George Clooney. C’mon. Watch: Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Ryann Grochowski Jones, data reporter

The Informant! (2009)

What kind of crazy person would risk his career and pension to blow the whistle on crimes committed by his employer? You’ll get the idea watching Steven Soderbergh’s true-to-life black comedy “The Informant!”, based on a book of the same title by journalist Kurt Eichenwald. In the film, Matt Damon plays Mark Whitacre, a zany division president of the agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland, who informs the FBI about an international price-fixing scheme for lysine, an amino acid commonly added to animal feed, not to mention a dietary supplement that cat owners of the world use to ward off kitty coughs. Over the course of their work together in the mid-1990s, the FBI learns that Whitacre, a manic-depressive and compulsive liar, isn’t as clean as the whistle he blows. He’s embezzled $9 million from his company, mostly while serving as the FBI’s chief source on the price-fixing scam. But that doesn’t mean he isn’t telling the truth. In the push-pull relationship between Whitacre and the FBI, you can learn a lot about the most important job of journalists: accessing their sources’ motivation and information, separating the shit from the shinola. And in case you’re wondering, both Whitacre and the food processing giant pay a price for their sins: Whitacre spends 8 ½ years in prison, and Archer Daniels Midland gives up $100 million — at the time the largest price-fixing fine in U.S. history.  Watch: Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Jennifer Stahl, associate editor

The Insider (1999)

Michael Mann’s 1999 film “The Insider” tells the true story of Jeffrey Wigand, a whistleblower for Big Tobacco – played, against-type, by a very understated and sweaty Russell Crowe – who agrees to tell what he knows to 60 Minutes, despite some very real threats to him and his family. Al Pacino plays Lowell Bergman, the CBS producer who has to gain and keep Wigand’s trust, which he does with alternating pressure and patience. This movie is tense, and it’s dark, and it dramatizes the complicated negotiations and calculations that go on between a journalist and source when fortunes and lives are at stake. A scary must-watch for all journalists. Watch: Amazon | iTunes |VuDu

— Lauren Kirchner, senior reporting fellow

The Parallax View (1974)

The greatest journalism movie is “The Parallax View”, by Alan Pakula, starring Warren Beatty. Beatty is a rumpled reporter who stumbles on a secretive conglomerate, the Parallax Corporation, that has a sidelight in training political assassins and then elaborately covering up the crimes. Beatty finally assembles the damning evidence of the conspiracies and is assassinated himself. His murder is also covered up. While not in the first tier of 1970s movies, it is a masterpiece of paranoia. And it’s a great journalism movie because it depicts the often-futile nature of our job. Watch: Amazon | iTunes |VuDu

— Jesse Eisinger, senior reporter

Quiz Show (1994)

This ripped-from-the-headlines film follows the scandal and congressional investigation of television networks hiring actors to perform as game show contestants. I nominated this film because it’s a great dramatization of how television enabled scandal to reach into people’s homes – making the experience personal and interactive. It is also does a nice job of showing how a new media (TV) creates a whole new set of problems and challenges. And of course, the scandal made for some great headlines and stories! Watch:Amazon | iTunes | VuDu

— Kate Brown, newsroom assistant

Z (1969)

This is a classic French political thriller directed by Costa-Gavras. The plot is based on the assassination of the Greek activist Gregorios Lambrakis, but the film tells a universal story about courage and injustice. The events have echoes in Latin America, Russia, the Middle East and, for that matter, certain cases in the history of the United States. Yves Montand plays a charismatic leftist politician who dies in murky circumstances during a melee at a street rally. The authorities quickly call it a traffic accident. A young and stubborn magistrate (Jean-Louis Trintignant) leads an investigation that unmasks a high-level conspiracy and cover-up. The writing and acting are powerful, and the camera work is propulsive. The narrative speeds seamlessly from one protagonist to another, gathering momentum and building its case with the vivid, methodical, detailed clarity that you find in the best journalism.  Z is full of great sequences: the assassination involving a three-wheeled truck known as a “kamikaze”; a chase in which a car tries to run down a witness; the reaction of the thuggish military officers when the prosecutor hauls them in for questioning. The cast shines in big and small roles alike, from the anguished widow (Irene Pappas) to the sleazy assassins Yago and Vago (Renato Salvatori and Marcel Bozzufi) to the scrappy photojournalist (Jacques Perrin).  The memorable score by Mikis Theodarakis plays a big role in ensuring that this story about a serious topic and a remote place remains gripping, funny, tragic and relevant today. Watch:Amazon | iTunes

— Sebastian Rotella, senior reporter


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