Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s brilliant, gripping dramatization of the Boston Globe’s Catholic sex abuse exposé, did bang-up business in limited release this weekend — but boy was that release limited, confined to just five screens in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston. So while the rest of the country is waiting to be deemed important enough to see it, I suggest another film that finds Michael Keaton playing a big-city newspaper editor: Ron Howard’s 1994 comedy/drama The Paper.
To be sure, it’s a decidedly less dour effort, falling less into the tradition of muckraking pictures like All the President’s Men than that of the newspaper comedies of the ‘30s, the fast-talking reporters and editors at their centers mirroring the scribes who were brought out to Hollywood, in the first flush of the talkie takeover, to write them. “The toughest-minded, the most satirical of the ’30s pictures often featured newspaper settings, or, at least, reporters,” wrote Pauline Kael, in her long essay on the greatest “newspaper picture” of them all, Citizen Kane. She described the newspaper picture as “a contemporary picture in an American setting, usually a melodrama with crime and political corruption and suspense and comedy and romance.”
That’s certainly an apt description of the fast-paced Paper, which is confined entirely to a 24-hour period (bookended by the morning news on 1010 WINS — The Paper is not just a great newspaper movie, but a great New York movie) and set in the newsroom of a Gotham tabloid daily not unlike the New York Post. Keaton plays Henry Hackett, the metro editor, heading into what his very pregnant wife Martha (Marisa Tomei) dubs one of “those days that could change your whole life.”
She’s talking about his final interview for a potential assistant managing editor job at the New York Sentinel, the Times to the movie’s Post (of their morning headline, “Nepal Premier Won’t Resign,” he sneers, “They’re just tryin’ to sell newspapers… that’s sensationalism, and I won’t be a party to it”). But over the course of the day, he’ll also find himself challenged by domestic concerns, his contentious boss (Glenn Close), and the big story of the day, a shooting in Williamsburg that’s nabbed two young black suspects who Hackett worries are getting the shaft.
Keaton occupies the film’s center, in a performance that captures the essence of his early screen persona: a likable guy who’s always thinking out loud, and at top speed. “He projects smartness, he sees all the angles, he sizes up a situation and acts on it while another actor might still be straightening his tie,” noted Roger Ebert of Keaton’s work here, and it’s the kind of performance that’s as much about virtuosity of technique as emotional or intellectual connection; it’s just fun to watch him wind himself up and go, barking orders, chasing leads, making excuses, and (in his best scene) working his phones, juggling calls with his reporter, his wife, and his angry almost-boss, as his current boss charges in and rips him a new one.
The ticking clock of a newspaper deadline proves a convenient hook for the film’s underlying (and undying) theme; like many a young professional, Henry hasn’t quite figured out the whole work/life management thing just yet, and the news business, in which every day is a clean slate with a new set of encroaching deadlines, tends to draw those who can’t quite get that balance right. Howard occasionally overplays this angle; a late dinner scene, with trick lenses, slowed-down sound, screaming kids, and an oppressive ticking clock, is a bit much. Better is the way the picture presents him with a human test case/alarm bell in the form of editor-in-chief Bernie White (Robert Duvall, perfection), a good newspaper man who’s left behind a trail of broken relationships and estranged family members, and speaks with some knowledge of the “human leeway” you tend to take for granted from your family when that deadline clock is ticking. And to her credit, Tomei plays what could’ve been a complaining harpy role as one of the few sensible characters in the picture, gripping her eight-and-half-months-pregnant form and patiently explaining to her husband, “It’s never one big dramatic choice — it’s little, vague situations every single day, and you’re either there, or you’re not.”
That’s a struggle just about any working person can relate to, but make no mistake, the inside-baseball feel of the newsroom material (co-writer Stephen Koepp did time in the trenches) is what makes The Paper sing. It’s a script steeped in delicious jargon: “wood,” “slammer,” “wet break,” “perp walk,” “spaghetti shots” (don’t ask). And the crackling energy, offhand humor, and sly one-upmanship of the editorial meetings is sheer joy, particularly a crack from Keaton on their “penile implant” series (“Can we possibly get another dick drawing? It looks like a map of Florida”) which is clearly improvised, based on the unmistakable first-time laugh of fellow editor Geoffrey Owens (in one of the movie’s many terrific, unassuming character roles).
More than anything, Koepp — who co-wrote with his brother David, fresh off Jurassic Park — knows and puts across the thrill of picking up the scent (even if it’s stolen off your potential employer’s desk) and chasing down a story long past when you should’ve let it go. Aside from the seriousness of its story, The Paper’s primary contrast to something like Spotlight is the compression of its events; that’s a film about patiently following a story for as long as you have to, whereas the stylized timeframe here requires the patient viewer to grant it a bit of leeway from a credibility standpoint, particularly since of course Martha has to go into labor by the end of this one, long day (to say nothing of the labored — haha — metaphor of intercutting the birth of that baby with the “delivery” of the morning edition).
But in focusing on the collapsed timeframe of a big story, The Paper is perhaps more timely today than when it was released. Less than 12% of American households had access to the “World Wide Web” when the film was released in 1994; it was not yet the threat to the business of the daily newspaper it became. But more pressingly, the Internet has changed the ways news is reported, with an emphasis on getting it fast rather than getting it right, and that existential dilemma is at the heart of The Paper. Close’s managing editor is content to hit their deadline with the story they have, and when Henry explains that “It’s 180 degrees wrong, we gotta change it,” she snaps back, “Not for today it’s not. Tomorrow it’s wrong. We only have to be right for a day.”
The rate of acceleration has changed, of course, but the sentiment too often remains the same (as seen in real-life journalism, and in reel-life journalism): get the story out there now, and get it right later. In telling the story of journalists who bother to get it right the first time, The Paper and Spotlight both play like admirable and necessary throwbacks.