To mark the release of Dan Gilroy’s crime thriller Nightcrawler, Darren O’Reilly looks back at some of the most impressive films on the topic of TV news, which provides incredibly fertile ground to examine issues such as ethics in journalism, fierce competition, voyeurism and broadcasting regulations. In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Lou Bloom, a petty thief living on the fringes of society who by chance witnesses a camera crew filming the aftermath of a car accident on an LA highway. This gives him an insight into the world of ‘nightcrawling’, a true-to-life phenomenon where vans of small, mostly amateur camera crews trawl LA and the police radio to get to accidents, crime-scenes and shootouts quickly in order to film the action to sell the footage to cut-throat morning tv news producers.
The tv news stations in these noteworthy films provide a tense, heightened atmosphere within which questions on ethics, boundaries and rivalry can progress in numerous narrative directions, sometimes resulting in chilling experiences (Nightcrawler, Network), sometimes outright comedy (Broadcast News), or sometimes carrying political and social messages (The Insider, The China Syndrome, A Face in The Crowd). I thought the arrival of Nightcrawler in cinemas provided a timely opportunity to take a look back at some classics, or just noteworthy films, which were set in tv newsrooms.
A Face in the Crowd (1957)
Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock has said that Elia Kazan’s classic, an ahead-of-its-time tale of power in the news media, is his favorite movie ever. Starring Andy Griffith – whose performance as Arkansas hobo Lonesome Rhodes is outstanding- Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau, the film was surprisingly overlooked for any awards. Rising overnight to TV fame and power, the film examines the pitfalls of becoming a political kingmaker and the social and cultural influence of TV and TV news.
The China Syndrome (1979)
Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas star in James Bridges’ tense thriller about a television reporter and cameraman investigating a nuclear power plant. The film is also a deft indictment of TV news media, questioning the influence of outside forces and how news is presented to the public. Kimberley Wells (Fonda) is the reporter who witnesses an accident at a nuclear power plant, but soon becomes embroiled in a far-reaching conspiracy to keep the full impact of the accident out of the media. The film, while ultimately a sensational thriller, raises the issues of corporate money and influence on TV media, and examines questions of ethics in broadcasting
The Insider (1999)
In typical Michael Mann fashion, this exquisitely made film features both superb cinematography, remarkable central performances (Russell Crowe and Al Pacino) and a fascinating background focused on a real life “60 Minutes” investigation into big tobacco. The producer of the show, Lowell Bergman (Pacino) shows intrepid journalistic spirit when a biologist at a tobacco company (Jeff Wigand played by Crowe) refuses to talk to him. Bergmann senses a deeper story and pursues him with wide ranging consequences. This film again explores ethics in media reporting and the onus that is on TV news to report news honestly and without sensationalism, while also dissecting the relationships between big business and media organisations, and the clout they have when they demand their self interest be maintained.
Good Night and Good Luck (2005)
This is a stunningly directed depiction of the controversy that erupted when news reporter Edward Murrow (a mesmerising David Strathairn) took on Senator McCarthy to expose him as a fear monger having generated far-reaching paranoia in the US on the threat of communism. The film garnered a host of Oscar nominations in 2006, including one for George Clooney for his duties behind the camera – just his second film as director. Showcasing the strength of journalistic determination, conviction and responsible presentation of TV news, Murrow’s ethics are the antithesis of that of the character of Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler and provide an interesting counterpoint.
Considered by many critics and filmmakers as the most iconic film in the genre, Network is a film of such ferocious power fuelled by frustration, anger and despair that it has a resounding emotional effect on the viewer. Featuring an unforgettable performance by Peter Finch as Howard Beale (deservedly winning an Oscar for the role), the film’s classic line “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” gives fuel to the concept of the power of convincing TV news reporters and their ability to place themselves in leadership roles. It’s one of the finest of Sidney Lumet’s many films, yet again focusing on the desire of news media to derive profit from TV news no matter how far ethical or social boundaries are pushed.
Broadcast News (1987)
The sharpest, funniest and most engaging TV news satirical film there is.The central plot of a major broadcast network drastically cutting staff and making major readjustments still has exactly the same relevance almost 30 years later. James L. Brooks’ razor sharp screenplay and flawless direction, mixed with three engaging, hilarious and sometimes heartbreaking performances from Albert Brooks, William Hurt and Holly Hunter (arguably at her best) results in an insightful look at the inner workings, rivalries and chaotic deadlines of a busy news room. The film interweaves a very delicate love story among the tension and disarray. With rapid change coming to the TV news industry in the ’80s, the broadcaster has to ultimately decide between style and substance – a decision they continue to grapple with today.