Jul 13 2012

Silver Screen Inspirations – What is Your Favourite Journo Film

I had fun times this week writing our GRNLive blog, mainly because I didn’t quite write it; the London summer was dazzling my senses, and not in a good way (it hasn’t stopped raining for two weeks) and I realised I might have made a mistake. After all, most journalists leaving their own countries do it in order to pursue BETTER weather. I suddenly remembered myself as a young teenager in the early 80s in Jerusalem watching new films like Killing Fields and The Year of Living Dangerously (Peter Weir, 1982) and vowing to become a foreign correspondent sipping whiskey at some swanky club after a day of witnessing terrible evil from a wreckage site wearing one of those multi pocket vests, and getting nearly killed, but not quite.

Alas, by the time I got round to it, Jerusalem had provided its fair share of terrible evil and wreckage sites in need of coverage. Also, the levels of corruption in the city at the time made me think more All The President’s Men than Salvador. By the time I ventured to faraway places, the “whiskey at swanky clubs” became more prominent in my dream than the “nearly getting killed”. This made me wonder what films about journalism inspired other journalists. I asked a few of our diligent correspondents around the world to name their favourites, and they came up with great responses, taking me back in time to some great movies I’ve seen and inspiring me to watch others. I’ve added links to all. As everybody says they are going to seek their favourite film and re-watch it, I suspect there is going to be a soaring world wide demand for The Year of Living Dangerously this weekend. Let’s hope director Peter Weir still gets some royalties for it. I’d like to mention a few other great ones that seemed to have slipped through my little survey: Sidney Lumet’s ruthless Network about a cynical TV network exploiting the mental crisis of a popular anchorman to enhance rating (1976), the veteran His Girl Friday (1940) with Cary Grant and Rosalind Russel who plays one of the first female investigative journalists on screen.

Here are the choices of some of our correspondents, please add your own in the comments section. What have we missed? And how has your favourite journalism film influence you? Join our chat!

Charles Aniagolu, London/Nigeria – My best journalism film would have to be FROST/NIXON (2008), directed by Ron Howard, which focuses on the 1977 interviews between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon about the Watergate scandal that undermined Nixon’s presidency. This is journalism at its best, a battle of egos between a solid journalist probing for truth and a dodgy ex-president who had become a master of deception. I found the movie quite gripping. Nixon actually thought at the time that the interview would help exonerate him, but of course, it did the opposite, as Frost, with superb journalistic dexterity, tightened the noose that ultimately hung the ex-president.

Julian Ryall, Tokyo – Have to say that I have two favourite journalism movies (both of which I had on DVD, loaned out to friends and have not seen since!) The first is The Killing Fields and the second is The Year of Living Dangerously. I’m drawn to both because they’re both set in Asia and record events that were truly game-changers for the respective nations, Cambodia and Indonesia. Both have great soundtracks as well!

Henry Peirse, GRNLive CEO, London – My favourite film about news is Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, simple because the behind the scenes chaos is spot on, very well done and hysterically funny. Obviously the film is terribly politically incorrect and nothing like this must ever happen. But I’ve come across a few characters in my career who bear a striking resemblance to a number of the fruit cakes the film places throughout the newsroom. For a view of what a newsroom might be like, this isn’t the film to watch, but to get a view of how it might work, there are a good number of themes here right on the nail.

Carmen Gentile, Kabul – Coup plots, political intrigue and a young Sigourney Weaver in a sticky, hot climate are why “The Year of Living Dangerously” is my favourite journalism film. The story follows the missteps and triumphs of a young Australian journalist Mel Gibson on his first foreign post: Jakarta in the mid-1960s. Hamilton’s predecessor left him with no contacts and little hope of making sense of the story until he is taken under the wing by the kindly/shadowy dwarf Bill Kwan (a role for which Linda Hunt won an Oscar). “The Year of Living Dangerously” reminds me of when I first moved to Cairo in the late 1990s, a young, clueless kid with a Philosophy degree and a minor in Islamic studies trying to make sense of the modern Middle East. Oh, and Hamilton gets gun-stock smashed in the face during the Communist coup plot and suffers a detached retina. I feel for him, having had one of those.

Tom Clifford, PragueThe Year of Living Dangerously. Even the title gets the pulse racing.  With the opening credits rolling, Maurice Jarre’s theme music kicks in as puppets are manipulated. Not a word has been spoken yet but Peter Weir’s film already feels menacing. I dare any red-blooded male not be won over by a haughty Sigourney Weaver giving Mel Gibson the brush-off. The film is set in Jakarta in the 1960s on the eve of an attempted coup. Released in 1982, I did not see it until 1985 in Limerick, Ireland. Don’t forget, this was the age before Internet and even computers were not commonplace.  It was actually filmed in Manila and I was going to the Philippine capital in January to see an aunt of mine who was a Columbian missionary. In early 1986, life imitated art and Marcos was overthrown as People Power took to the streets. I filed my first stories, over dodgy fax machines and telephone lines, about events on the streets shown in the film. The film’s central message has stayed with me: the story is in front of you. Decades after I first saw it, I still hum the music.

Ken McCoy, Hollywood – Based on a true Story, The Bang Bang Club is about photojournalists who covered racial and apartheid massacres in South Africa. This movie was compelling for many reasons for photojournalists (new and vets) because of the personal territories that we deal with and that we have to face when we are new to a work zone. We have to separate ourselves from the story to not become the story. Thirdly, many people don’t understand how prepared we have to be for the unexpected. The new guy in the film follows a story lead and holds his ground and eventually gains allies – however, he had to figure the cost to himself and relationships. As I watched this film as a photojournalist, I felt the realism, confusion, distance, acclaim, joy, pain and complacency of the job. I recommend it to photojournalists worldwide so they may better understand that photojournalists have feelings, are real people who face difficult choices in doing our job in the most moral and ethical manner.

Kate Clark, Kabul – This is a weird one, but Lawrence of Arabia. Yes I know it’s about a European imperialist, not a journalist, but watching it at the BFI on the big screen in 2008, the film’s epic landscapes and sheer doggedness of Lawrence made me want to walk out of the cinema and get on my camel and go and do something elsewhere. London felt very small. I went first to Syria, then Afghanistan.

Julius Cavendish, Ivory CoastThe Front Page. It’s the ‘Scoop’ of the movie world. Scurrilous, sleazy, hard-drinking hacks hammering out grotesque fictions and snappy one-liners. Absolutely brilliant.

Jeta Xharra, Pristina –  Good Night and Good Luck, because it gives a good insight into how a paranoia can turn even a democratic government against its own citizens.

Daniel Schweimler, Buenos Aires – My favourite, although I’ve not seen it for some time, is Salvador, starring James Woods. It’s a little ‘Hollywood’ but depicts Latin America in a reasonable light and Woods with his flawed moral values but whose good heart wins out in the end was marvelous. I couldn’t say it inspired me to become a journalist or to come and live and work in Latin America but it certainly helped to feed the romantic notions I have about working in journalism. The civil war in El Salvador was a bit before my time but I did get to cover the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, Mexico, and thought about Salvador while I was there.

Christopher Walker, London – Given that most foreign correspondents’ favourite novel is Scoop by Evelyn Waugh (some re-read it almost religiously every year), it may be no surprise that my runaway winner in the “favourite film about journalism” category is the 1987  ITV version of Scoop, scripted with loving care by novelist William Boyd – himself a former hack – and distributed on DVD by Network. With a star-studded cast including Michael Horden, Denholm Elliott, Donald Pleasence, Nicola Pagett, and directed by Gavin Millar of Foyle’s War fame, it hilariously combines the improbability of the original with a startling likeness to the antics of the international hack pack in action today.

The part of William Boot, mild-mannered nature columnist of the Daily Boot, who is the victim of whopping mistaken ID and ends up covering a war in the fictitious east African republic of Ishmaelia, is played with  marvelous insouciance by Michael Maloney of Notes on a Scandal, who ends up scooping the world and then retires  – despite herograms by the ton – to covering the everyday life of glebes on his family estate. Outstanding is Pleasance in the unforgettable role of Lord Copper, combining the blinkered ambition of a Beaverbrook with the stubbornness of a Murdoch. His hapless foreign editor, Salter (Denholm Elliott at his most timorous) gives new meaning to the famous phrase, now part of every educated Englishman’s lexicon: “Up to a point, Lord Copper.”

Nick Meo, London (when he can sit still) – I suppose the film that made the greatest impression on me was Salvador, the Oliver Stone film about the 1980s civil war in the Central American country. It was all a bit rock and roll, over the top, and anti-establishment – one of the crazy freelances drops acid in the cocktail of a TV hotshot just before she goes live on air to spout propaganda she’s been given by the man from the US embassy – and the anti-hero freelance journalist, James Woods, nearly gets castrated by a militiaman. I haven’t seen it for years and I’m sure it is very dated, but it certainly made journalism look exciting and it does show the horrors of these kind of wars and the bizarre world of journalists covering them. There have been times in my freelance career when Salvador has seemed like a pretty good guide to foreign freelance reporting.

To my mind The Killing Fields is the classic. I visited Cambodia several times when the Khmer Rouge trials were being set up, and watched the film there. It is a gripping and masterly account of what happened.
A couple of days ago on a plane back from Cairo I saw Bel Ami, about a cynical adventurer and seducer in Belle Epoch Paris, played by the guy from the teenie vampire films, which I enjoyed. He starts his career working as a hack journalist in the dog-eat-dog world of a political journal.


Your turn now, do tell…


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  1. Charlie Pottins

    Veronia Guerin. If I did not know it was a true story I’d have said it was “far-fetched, No journalist is that brave, They don’t go after such dangerous crims”. Well ours don’t, But she did, and paid the price.

  2. Camilla Schick

    The Insider, Killing Fields, & last but not least The Rum Diaries 😉

  3. Martin Vogl

    Any takers for Wag the Dog? Reminds us journos what we’re up against. The scene where Dustin Hoffman directs the ‘news’ item from Albania that is going to be leaked to the press sticks in my memory.

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