I hope the ways that journalism figures into films that aren’t about journalism reflect its importance in everyday life.
I haven’t watched any movies about journalism or newspapers this holiday season, but again and again, journalism sneaks into the movie somehow:
Of the movies I watched recently, “Philomena” was my favorite and the one with the strongest journalism connection. It’s “inspired” (they say that now, rather than “based on”) by the true story of journalist Martin Sixsmith helping Philomena Lee learn what became of the son she gave up for adoption at an Irish convent in 1952.
Though one of the main characters is a journalist, this isn’t a journalism movie. It’s a movie about abuse of unwed mothers by church institutions and about the connection between a biological mother and her lost son.
As one who has blogged about the importance of humanity in telling stories and about the heart as a tool of journalism, I initially pondered blogging about the movie’s depiction of Sixsmith’s relationship with Lee, flying with her to America in search of her son. The truth of how Sixsmith identified her son and learned what had become of him was less sexy: He dug through old passport records and newspaper stories.
Nonetheless, Sixsmith was key to the actual story, in real life or with a little storytelling license. It was Philomena’s story, but Sixsmith identified the son and learned that he had visited the convent, searching for the biological mother who was searching for him.
In the movie and in truth, Philomena’s story underscores that good journalists have valuable skills that can find important truths that elude the average person.
Alexander Payne grew up in Omaha and shot his first three major movies in Nebraska and set “About Schmidt” in Omaha. His emergence as a screenwriter and director came during my time at the Omaha World-Herald. In a community engagement/crowdsourcing effort, before journalists were using those terms, our features staff had a “Where’s Jack” feature, inviting people to report Jack Nicholson sightings while Payne was shooting in Omaha. Today we’d use a #wheresJack hashtag.
I was in California on another story (about Tammy Meneghini’s play, “The Afghan Women”) shortly after “About Schmidt” came out and watched it in Burbank, doing a story about how Californians reacted differently to the Omaha and Nebraska depictions and references in the movie.
All that might have been plenty to ensure a continuing interest in Payne’s movies. But Payne cast my middle son, Joe, as an extra in “Election,” shot at Joe’s school, Papillion-La Vista High School. If you’ve seen the movie, Joe’s the tall, skinny, long-haired kid next to the kid who tells Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) “Eat me,” after he pulls a fistful of gum from her fishbowl and she tells him he’s only supposed to take one. (By the way, this gives me just four degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon, who appeared in “A Few Good Men” with Nicholson.)
It’s another terrific movie, with great performances and moments throughout, hilarious and grim in the same moments. If you’re a father or a son — I’m both, of course — some of the scenes between Bruce Dern and Will Forte will make you laugh out loud or bring a tear to your eye. Or both. Dern plays a demented, alcoholic father who thinks he has won a million dollars in a sweepstakes and is determined to go to Lincoln, Neb., from his home in Billings, Mont., to collect his prize. Most of the movie takes place en route, in the fictional town of Hawthorne, Neb. (IMDB cites four Nebraska towns as locations for shooting the movie, in addition to Lincoln and Billings.)
When the father, Woody Grant, tells drinking buddies in a Hawthorne bar that he’s won a million dollars, word spreads and the Hawthorne Republican sends a young kid out to shoot his picture. I don’t think I looked that young when I first worked for a small-town paper, but I won’t swear to it.
When Woody’s sons drop by the Republican to say that their father won’t be coming for an interview, they learn a little more about their dad from the editor, who, of course, knows everyone in the little town. When she pulls out a bound copy of old editions to find the story about Woody’s return from the Korean War, I felt a lump in my throat, thinking how often I’ve looked through bound volumes in small-town newspaper offices. Those back issues of small-town newspapers are the community’s story. I hope digital archives remain as durable and useful.
Some important parts of my story about the people in Buddy Bunker’s classic photo “The Homecoming” came from back issues of the Villisca Review from decades before. And I researched more stories than I can recount by going through back issues of the Evening Sentinel, stored in an old vault in the basement. If you’ve read Mimi’s novel, “Gathering String,” a couple of key scenes take place as the characters do research in a similar basement vault.
Saving Mr. Banks
You’ve probably seen trailers and commercials for “Saving Mr. Banks,” which is getting the full Disney promotional treatment. I loved “Mary Poppins” as a boy and there was never any doubt I was going to see this movie about author P.L. Travers‘ relationships with her father and with Walt Disney.
I won’t review it here, but get right to the newspaper part: When it looks like Travers is not going to trust her beloved character to Disney, he flies to London to make one more try. He has figured out that Mr. Banks is really her father, and he needs to convince her that he understands conflicted feelings about a father (all three of these movies, at their hearts, are about parent-child relationships).
Disney tells about delivering newspapers (including my old newspaper, the Kansas City Star) for his demanding father, Elias Disney, in deep snow, then going to school cold and wet, then doing an evening route. Having endured six Kansas City winters, I think Disney (or at least Tom Hanks in the Disney Studios’ script) might have been exaggerating a tad, describing winters more like Iowa, Nebraska or even farther north.
But the Disney character was actually giving a glimpse of an ugly fact of the glorious past of newspapers that we like to exalt as we wonder how long print will last: The newspaper business model relied for decades on exploitation of children.
I say this as a child who was and remains grateful for having been exploited. I had two different routes for the Columbus Citizen-Journal (may it rest in peace) from 1968 to 1970, my freshman and sophomore years of high school (older than Disney was when he was a carrier). My earnings from my route paid my way to Philmont Scout Ranch in 1969 and a Canadian canoe trip in 1970, and those were two of the best experiences of my youth. I awoke an hour early (we’re talking 4:30ish) each morning to read the paper before I ran my route, dreaming of one day being the reporter writing those front-page (or perhaps sports-page) stories. I’m glad I was a paperboy (we didn’t use the gender-neutral term carrier then).
But it was a miserable job on a snowy or rainy morning. And it was a dangerous job. In my editing and reporting days, my newsrooms covered the disappearances of two young paper carriers in the dark of the morning in communities where I worked. One was murdered. The other was never found. My newsrooms have also covered court cases where newspapers fought successfully to deny workers compensation coverage to paper carriers hit by cars as they worked in the dark. They didn’t get workers comp because they were independent contractors, not employees, a relationship every newspaper I know of insisted upon.
I cherish my experience as a newspaper carrier. But I also can envision the investigative stories a good newspaper would have produced if another important industry had relied as heavily on children working in unsafe conditions, intentionally structuring the relationship so that the corporations didn’t have to pay workers minimum wage, benefits, Social Security tax or workers comp.
And just to be clear: I’ve told Mimi that if Disney (the studio, not the Walt, who died just a couple years after “Mary Poppins”) wants to shoot “Gathering String” with animated dancing penguins, she should smile and take their money.
Journalism scenes in other movies
We watched “American Hustle” this holiday season, too. Mimi and I vaguely remember a version of the media horde scene that is kind of a movie staple (or cliché) after the Abscam arrests. But since it didn’t stand out at the time, I won’t stretch to comment on it.
I don’t want to make too much out of the fact that these movies all dealt with journalism in some way. The movies also weren’t about food, drink, law, money or transportation, but food, drink, law, money and transportation figured into some or all of the movies I watched this holiday season, too. Maybe, like food, drink, law, money and transportation, journalism is an essential and universal part of life. If so, we should be able to figure out how to build a successful business to support it.
My reflections of the journalism aspects of these movies has inspired a separate post on newspaper/journalism scenes from other movies.