The Post

The film that inspired this list! While some may wish Steven Spielberg would go back to making straight-up popcorn films, I’d argue that Spielberg’s 21st-century output is among the most interesting of his career. The Post is another civics lesson film from the directory, forming a third entry in the lose trilogy that also includes Lincoln and Bridge of Spies.

Spielberg has assembled an all-star cast, but put Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep front and center in the true story of the Washington Post’s battle to publish the Pentagon Papers. The Post may be dabbling in the past, but it’s very much a film about today, with Spielberg striving to defend a free press that frequently finds itself criticized against the current presidential administration.

As I said in my review, “Near the end of The Post, a quote from Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black is repeated by Carrie Coon’s Meg Greenfield. “The press was to serve the governed,” she quotes, “not the governors.” That 46-year-old quote rings out across time, and serves as a rallying cry for today. The Post isn’t precisely the best film of the year, but it is the most important.”

Spotlight

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is one of the best journalism films because it’s devoted to actually showing its reporters doing their jobs. More often than not, films take shortcuts and have their reporters simply typing away at a typewriter while not doing any actual digging. Spotlight is the opposite: it has scene after scene featuring its reporter characters chasing leads, pounding the pavement and knocking on doors.

Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’arcy James and Mark Ruffalo play members of the Boston Globe Spotlight team, who blew the lid off the massive cover-up of sex abuse within the Catholic Church. There’s a lot going on here – the film is first and foremost about how the church took great pains to protect pedophiles within its ranks.

But the attention to journalistic detail on display in Spotlight is top notch. Case in point: when the reporters turn in their story, editor Marty Baron (a cool, collected Liev Schreiber) instantly begins pouring over it with a red pen at hand. When someone asks him what he keeps circling in red, Schreiber mutters, “Adjectives.”

State of Play

I feel like this surprisingly effective 2009 thriller from Kevin Macdonald slipped through the cracks, and it deserves to be rediscovered. Adapted from a British television series of the same name, State of Play follows scruffy, sleepy-looking journalist Russell Crowe as he digs into the death of a congressman’s (Ben Affleck) mistress. Here’s the twist: the journalist and the congressman are old friends, and the journalist possibly had a relationship with the congressman’s wife, played Robin Wright in what feels like a test-run for her House of Cards role.

State of Play is more interested in its thriller elements than it is the journalism side of things, but there’s still plenty of newsroom drama here. Most of it comes as the result of rookie reporter Rachel McAdams, who is a different breed of journalist than Crowe’s character. State of Play hit theaters right as internet-based journalism was beginning to become the mainstream and push print out the door, and a lot of the tension here results in Crowe’s tried and true methods clashing with McAdams’ blogging-based news breaks.

Zodiac

David Fincher’s Zodiac is the All the President’s Men of serial killer movies. While Zodiac is, of course, a chronicle of the crimes of the never-captured Zodiac Killer, it’s also one hell of a newsroom movie, filled with scene after scene of characters huddled around typewriters or gathered together in editorial meetings, trying to make sense of a serial killer’s letters.

Ironically enough, it’s not a journalist who attempts to crack the case, but rather the San Francisco Chronicle’s cartoonist, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who does the most digging. The journalism side of things is handled by Robert Downey Jr., playing a hard-drinking, hard-smoking crime reporter who always has his notepad at the ready.

More than just a portrait of obsession and a cracking-good serial killer yarn, Zodiac is a film that highlights both the highs and lows of journalism, from the thrill of thinking you’re onto a big lead to the drudgery of pouring over piles of mind-numbing documents in a sometimes futile search for confirmation.

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