Fictional newsrooms have always been more glamorous than the reality

Sorkin's The Newsroom isn't alone in sexing up the day-to-day grind of journalism on screen.

The Newsroom has faced a mixed reception, but it’s the latest in a long line of dramas to use journalism as a stage for drama. Here are some other attempts to render the business of newsgathering into entertaining stories, with variable results...

One of the problems about The Newsroom is its immediate comparison to a host of other attempts to show "the lives behind the anchors". Network (1976) and Broadcast News (1987) are two of the most obvious examples, and without them there probably wouldn’t have been Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, an improvised adventure set at San Diego’s KVWN channel. The strict “I love lamp” adherence to autocue, the catty male vs female anchor, the jazz flute... It had it all. Was it a fair reflection of a newsroom, as a bunch of socially inept misfits with monstrous egos all attempting to fight one another? Maybe closer than you might think.

Will Ferrell as Ron Burgundy in "Anchorman".

A lot of that groundwork had been covered by Channel 4’s hit-and-miss Drop the Dead Donkey, a show that aimed to provide topical comedy and sitcom in one hit. Something had to give, and it was the satire that didn’t quite come off, though the hastily-filmed last-minute jokes must have provided something of the thrill of a real newsroom on deadline. It did provide some wonderfully cynical moments, though, with

The newsroom from "Drop the Dead Donkey".

In terms of print journalism, All the President’s Men is the obvious place to go, but the more fictional offices of the Daily Planet are worth a closer look, from the first (and only good) Superman films. The seething chemistry between Margot Kidder’s crabby reporter Lois Lane and Christopher Reeve’s folksy alien hack was really something special. Watch this scene and you’ll enjoy not only the interplay between Reeve, Kidder and Jackie Cooper but also the rather quaint newspaper atmosphere:

“It’s got everything, it’s got sex, it’s got violence, it’s got the ethnic angle” says Lois, pitching her story idea to editor Perry White. “You’re pushing a bunch of rinkydink tabloid garbage,” sighs White. An editor with principles! A rare breed indeed.

My favourite depiction of Fleet Street – and it really was Fleet Street – is in 1961’s The Day The Earth Caught Fire. It’s a story that probably seems entirely implausible today, given that the conceit rests on the Daily Express (yes, the Daily Express) honestly reporting a genuine catastrophe (rather than, say, catastrophising a slightly drizzly afternoon, as is the case in 2012).

The presses roll in "The Day The Earth Caught Fire".

It jars slightly in another way: the journalists are heroes, not the sneaky phonehacking lowlife we know they all are (all of them, without exception) nowadays. It’s the honest hacks who are the ones trying to get the truth out while the powers that be attempt to conceal it. Filmed in the Express offices, it captures an era that won’t ever return: the crossword compositor perched in front of his grid of letters, a giant sign demanding “IMPACT!” hanging from the ceiling, and the presses actually rolling within a hundred miles of the people writing the news. Those were the days.

But those of us who are of a certain age see only one thing when they think of a TV newsroom – Press Gang. The simmering sexual frisson between Julia Sawalha and Dexter Fletcher! The fact they somehow managed to produce an entire newspaper – The Junior Gazette – every week despite having no feasible form of revenue! The way they were barely out of school but managed to scoop all other news outlets! The weird flashbacks and dream sequences!

Julia Sawalha in "Press Gang".

But my god, it was glamorous. If you didn’t have a yen to be a hack after watching five minutes of that, you never would. It was certainly what made me want to become a journalist, back in the day. One day, I told myself, I would work in a place like that, where young people wore CASUAL CLOTHING and REPORTED on PROPER NEWS and all that.

Of course, reality wasn’t quite the same. My first newsroom was a tin shack in the middle of a horrible industrial estate, with water gushing in through the ceiling and over the electrical cables. One false move and you’d be zapped across the banks of slumbering corduroy-covered subs and impaled on a giant metal spike (which hadn’t yet been outlawed by the elfnsafety killjoys). Did we have two-hour lunches though? Yes, we did. At least in those days there was a healthily tolerant attitude towards drinking in the workplace, which has sadly never quite been replicated on screen.

The stories weren’t quite as fun, mind. There wasn’t much challenging authority and sticking it to the man with a last-minute deadline: it was all tedious nibs about craft fairs, school fetes and overgrown front gardens (leading to the memorable front-page headline "OAPs TRAPPED BY 3FT LAWN").

No wonder we’re a little more drawn to the less realistic, more glamorous, more exciting side of newsgathering when it comes to dramas. Give me the fake newsroom world with its huge egos and lingering sexual tension rather than the reality of tedious copied-and-pasted press releases any day...

 

The Newsroom's anchor, played by Jeff Daniels. Image: HBO.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media

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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump