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THE BIG PICTURE

Why do newspaper yarns still sell?

Despite the industry's travails, moral dilemmas are key to the genre. Witness 'State of Play' and 'The Soloist.'

April 21, 2009|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

As you may have heard, these are hard times for the journalism business. Newspapers are biting the dust left and right. My own paper's ownership has filed for bankruptcy. Ditto for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and other media groups. Even the New York Times is battening down the hatches.

When I visited the Dodger Stadium press box the other day, a lofty perch once full to the brim with sportswriters, the joint looked like a bar on the day after St. Patrick's Day.

So why does Hollywood keep making movies about newspapermen? The short answer is that Hollywood loves a good yarn. For much of its 100-plus-year history, whenever Hollywood has portrayed journalists, it seems to have taken the advice of the frontier newspaper editor in John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance," who said: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

The maxim is certainly alive today, as is evidenced by two new films that revolve around journalists. This past weekend saw the arrival of "State of Play," which stars Russell Crowe as a freewheeling investigative reporter ensnared in a nasty web of Washington intrigue and conflict of interest. Due this Friday is "The Soloist," which features Robert Downey Jr. playing The Times' own Steve Lopez, a newspaper columnist who finds himself intertwined in an equally complicated relationship with a homeless musician, a relationship inspired by a series of columns Lopez wrote for our paper in 2005.

Neither movie is expected to be a big hit. "State of Play," which cost close to $65 million, opened to a mediocre $14.1 million this weekend. "The Soloist" (originally slated for release last fall) cost less, is more realistic and might do slightly better at the box office. But both films feel a bit like curios in an era of sci-fi fantasies and superhero adventure extravaganzas.

I say that with sadness because it was a movie -- or more accurately, a series of movies -- that made me want to be a journalist. When I was in film school, we were bombarded with all sorts of rakish visions of newspaper life, including "Nothing Sacred," "His Girl Friday," "Sweet Smell of Success" and "All the President's Men." Even in the darker, more cynical renditions of the world, like Billy Wilder's "Ace in the Hole," you knew being a reporter was where the action was.

But we now live in an era of diminished expectations, especially when it comes to newspaper dramas. In "State of Play," Crowe's investigative reporter manipulates everyone to get to the bottom of the story, which involves some good old government conspiracy. The film makes a halting attempt to introduce a contemporary story line -- his paper has an annoying young blogger on the same story -- but instead of pursuing the tension in that relationship, the film simply turns the character (played by Rachel McAdams) into a perky gofer for Crowe's big-shot journalist. At the film's end, the reporter presses the SEND button and the presses miraculously begin to roll -- print the legend, indeed!

"The Soloist" is more nuanced, since it's really a film about a relationship between two dysfunctional guys. One of them is pretty woeful: Jamie Foxx's musician character is a schizophrenic, hearing voices and living out of cardboard boxes on the street. But even Lopez, in Downey's hands, is something of a lost soul himself, stuck with an ex-wife as his editor, out of touch with his son and often unable to commit himself to any relationships, especially with a homeless, emotionally volatile man who often demands more unconditional love than Lopez or anyone else can offer.

So why would Hollywood keep making movies about characters like that when selling a comedy about carefree kids or a superhero saving the world is so much easier?

Newspaper movies get made because good drama usually involves moral dilemmas -- and when it comes to complicated choices, the daily work of a newspaper reporter is a perfect vehicle.

If you look back on the history of newspaper movies, virtually all of the great films, comedy or drama, involve wrestling with difficult choices and establishing some sort of moral compass. Whether it's "His Girl Friday" or "Sweet Smell of Success" or "Broadcast News," the issue always raises its head -- how far will you go to get the story?

Newspaper movies also offer characters that, for innumerable decades, seemed especially colorful or larger than life.

"If there's any one reason why Hollywood has always had a love affair with newspaper movies, it's because the stories feel so exciting in your mind," says Sony Pictures Co-Chairwoman Amy Pascal. "There's a certain romance to the idea that these people -- the reporters -- choose to tell difficult stories, worry about their integrity and don't need to get paid a lot of money. Just by the nature of the kind of stories they're chasing, you've got a great arena for a morality play."

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