Sources say The Paper came out 25 years ago today. It didn’t make it to Maryland for another week but The Paper was a special movie to me long before I became a journalist. I had recently gotten my driver’s license and discovered that if I wanted to go to a movie first thing in the morning, I could just go. I didn’t need my busy parents to take me. So I went to several movies at the early show at Marley Station. It was a great sense of freedom, and I saw a bunch of movies that way until I went to work at a different theater and saw movies on a different schedule, and for free.
I wrote movie reviews and articles for the school newspaper but I wasn’t going to see The Paper as an aspiring journalist. I was seeing it as a fan of Michael Keaton and Ron Howard. Now, in 2019, I thought it would be fun to look at it as a working journalist.
Henry Hackett (Keaton) edits the Metro section of the fictional The New York Sun, the worst paper in the city that always gets scooped. Henry’s entertaining an offer from The Sentinal but today’s news story reinvigorates his passion for the news. Two black kids (Vincent D’Arbouze and Michael Michael) discover two murdered white businessmen and get accused of the crime. Covering the story raises issues of journalistic ethics and discrimination that unfortunately hasn’t improved in 25 years.
It’s a great role for Keaton to get that glint in his eye. He pokes holes in the official story, he stalls for time, he does the legwork to get the quote and of course gets to stop the presses. He’s doing it because he believes telling the truth still matters. Sorry, Henry. 25 years later facts don’t matter.
It distracts him from his personal life. It’s almost an anxiety trigger to see him keep making excuses to abandon commitments to his wife Martha (Marisa Tomei) to go back to work, but it’s true. Entertainment journalism conflicts with a personal life, let alone hard news. Hey, Martha. Keaton played Batman…
Managing editor Alicia Clark (Glenn Close) wants to limit out of state calls to after 5pm. Remember when phone rates went down after five? Imagine doing journalism on that schedule. It’s just an aside but illustrates the battle between money and actually getting the job done.
Alicia just wants to get the paper out on time and if Henry gets new information after they print, them’s the breaks. “We only have to be right for a day,” she says. That was the battle journalists faced in the print age. Could the paper afford to trash all the work that had already been printed if they got new information? Could you put a price on the truth?
In 2019 it’s a bit unfortunate that the two main female characters are a business shrew and a nagging pregnant housewife. There is veteran reporter Carmen (Roma Maffia) and novice photographer Robin (Amelia Campbell) but their combined screen time doesn’t equal Close or Tomei’s. Spotlight and The Post would donbetter for female journalists. They were true stories, so it was actually real life female journalists doing better for themselves than fiction did for them. Alicia is set up for redemption at least. I’m not sure if the movie knows Martha is right. You don’t abandon commitments to your family. You can delegate.
The Paper captures the energy of a newsroom. I assume. I’ve been freelance my entire career, but I’ve seen All the President’s Men, Spotlight and The Post and I hear that newspapers were a way people used to do journalism all in one office so I believe them. The Sentinel office is much more orderly and boring.
I suppose as a teenager The Sun looked like an exciting place to work. Now that kind of workplace stresses me out. This is one day in the life. Every day they’re scrambling for new stories and arguing with each other. They’re gonna do that again tomorrow and the next day and next week too!
Daily content should feel like a cakewalk to me because the environment I worked in was more frequent than daily. We have deadlines every hour or minute online. Maybe that pressure removes a lot of the crosstalk. The news doesn’t wait so you have to just do it. We probably do it for even less money than the underpaid characters in The Paper complain about making. I’ll take it though. I don’t have the constitution to answer constant crosstalk every day.
The story of the two black kids framed just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time was already relevant post Rodney King. The fact that they send a squad of cops in riot gear to arrest two teenagers is egregious. It is unfortunate that The Paper couldn’t be bothered to give the kids names though. I heard one call the other Daryll but they are credited as “First Kid” and “Second Kid.”
Tomei’s pregnant belly is extreme when they show the prosthetic. An offhand joke about Donald Trump jumping off a building and landing on Madonna has new meaning in retrospect. Randy Quaid playing a conspiracy theorist was prescient, and firing a gun in a newspaper office isn’t funny anymore.
The Paper was always a love letter to the ideal of the newsman, fighting for the story against systems that wanted to save time or money. Those forces would only get more oppressive, but we keep finding new ways to fight for the truth, whether it’s circumventing print altogether or taking to social media to report in real time. I miss the days when a newspaper would have the influence to promote social change, and competition between city papers forced all of them to do better. At least maybe the death of print broke up all the newsroom boys clubs so there’s more room for women and people of color to break through.