‘The Paper’ is the Most Essential and Overlooked Film About Journalism

There’s a lot to like about The Post, a film that has drawn rave reviews even before its pre-holidays debut. The combination of Meryl Streep as Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham, and Tom Hanks as the paper’s editor-in-chief Ben Bradlee is the rare pairing of GOAT actors operating at their all-time peak.

The film covers the publication of the Pentagon Papers in the New York Times, the Washington Post’s attempt to obtain its own copy, and the ensuing battle against the Nixon administration which led to the Supreme Court case about the Daniel Ellsberg-leaked documents. As Manohla Dargis of the New York Times described in her review of the film, “The pleasure of The Post is how it sweeps you up in how it all went down…Like many movies that turn the past into entertainment, The Post gently traces the arc of history, while also bending it for dramatic punch and narrative expediency.”

The Post is the ultimate click-bait film for our current moment: An all-star cast telling the story of righteous journalism while press freedoms are being threatened on a daily basis. There is a time-honored tradition of films that have functioned in a similar way, including NetworkAll the President’s Men, and most recently, Spotlight. Last month The Post published a compendium of the greatest journalism movies ever made, selected by the likes of Katy Tur, Jill Abramson, and Marty Baron (who, of course, chose Spotlight, where he’s played by Liev Schreiber). And on the heels of The Post’s rundown was a feature by Haley Mlotek on the 30th anniversary of Broadcast News, the 1987 drama that “predicted journalism as we know it.”

What’s most interesting isn’t the selection of films that have largely defined what our conceived notions of how journalism functions, including what reporters look like — bodies clad in beige clothing drinking copious amounts of coffee. What I find fascinating is that most of these films deal with large-scale or long-form investigative reporting, the type of work that takes months and involves countless interview montages. What about a film that covers a day in the life of an average newspaper?

I’m talking about The Paper, in my opinion, the best journalism film ever made and one that almost never gets any credit. Starring Michael Keaton as the metro editor of the fictional Sun — a loose portrayal of The New York Post —  the movie details the killing of two out-of-state businessmen in a pre-gentrified Williamsburg and the arrest of two black teenagers for the crime. The problem is the charges are bogus, a mob hit made to look like murders with racial undertones at a time when New York, on the screen and in real life, had reached a tipping point. The Sun and its staff, including Glenn Close as the managing editor, Robert Duvall as the EIC, and Randy Quaid as a quasi-Mike McAlary-Pete Hamill-type columnist, have a day to both confirm and break the exclusive. Asked at one point why the story can’t wait until the next day, as Close tells Keaton during a staff meeting, “We taint them today, we make them look good on Saturday, everybody’s happy.” Keaton exclaims, “Not tomorrow, right fucking now, today!”

Co-written by Stephen Koepp, former executive editor of Time magazine, The Paper beautifully illustrates the lunacy and creativity of working under a deadline. The feeling one gets upon getting the perfect quote — “Don’t take the bat out of my hands, it’s the ninth inning, I got to get the quote, the guy’s not going to be there all night,” says Keaton — or confirming a previously deep background detail on the record. It’s a rush native to only journalists, the endorphins multiplying as you have only minutes to finish the article. Every reporter has experienced at least one editor snapping at them as Duvall does to Keaton, “You want to run the story? You have five hours until 8 o’clock — go get the story. Do your job!” And then it’s over, and you have to do it again the next day. That’s the inherent genius of The Paper. No other film conveys the madness of deadline journalism — or the fun.

Midway through the film, Quaid, who shines as the paper’s embattled columnist who believes people are plotting against him, fires a gun through a stack of newspapers to end an argument, which allows Keaton to finish a conversation with his wife (played by the brilliant Marisa Tomei).

At which point, Tomei, whose character works at the Sun and is at the beginning of her maternity leave, gushes, “God, I miss this place!”

The journalism practiced in All the President’s MenThe Post, and Spotlight is never going to cease — it’s the journalism that will always endure. The deep-rooted injustices that are so outrageous, it is as if the abuses themselves are practically begging for someone to shine a light on. Liev Schreiber, as The Boston Globe‘s editor-in-chief, makes this point in Spotlight: “Sometimes it is easy to forget that we spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. Suddenly, a light gets turned on.” But what is being threatened is the journalism of The Paper: the daily local grind.

Following the dissolution of uber-local sites DNAInfo and Gothamist, Danielle Tcholakian wrote about what happens when newspapers stop covering what immediately impacts its citizens:

That was a big part of what we were there to do: show people exactly how every action, big or small, impacted their daily lives in the neighborhoods they lived in and loved.

And that is what makes The Paper so special, and why Tomei’s quote is such a genius line. She underscores the heart of the film: forget the money, the fame, and the accolades, all that matters is getting the story right — for a moment, because as the 1010 Wins tagline blares throughout the film at various points, “Your whole world can change in 24 hours.”