HIFF Film Review: ‘Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer’ Is Essential Viewing in Our Current Media Climate

2019 HAMPTONS INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: One of the more unexpected delights in the Hamptons was a documentary from Mark Landsman about the National Enquirer.

Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer” takes audiences through the history of America’s most notorious tabloid, beginning with its acquisition by Generoso Pope Jr in the 1950s. Using seed money from his godfather—mafia crime boss Frank Costello—he bought the paper from the Hearst Corporation and began the transition that would eventually lead to what it has become today.

Incorporating impossible-to-get interviews with the likes of Enquirer chief Ian Calder, as well as a number of reporters from different eras, Landsman tells the whole story. From a gritty paper of gruesome death stories to the most prolific propaganda tool of the right, Landsman’s film doesn’t shy away from any of the details of this fascinating history.

Landsman begins the documentary by digging into Pope’s purchase and addresses the rumors that it was bought with mob money. This all feels like a fairly standard and straightforward documentary at first, as he incorporates upbeat music and archival footage to explore the way ordinary Americans got so caught up in buying a newspaper full of death and carnage.

Apr 05, 1978 – Boca Raton, Florida, U.S. – National Enquirer Publisher Generoso Pope and copy of the photo of Elvis Presley.

But as the world begins to change, so, too, does the National Enquirer. And so does the tone of “Scandalous,” as we move from archival storytelling to something very different. While the structure still follows a familiar outline, the stories themselves unfold into a fascinating account of unscrupulous journalists and limitless expense accounts. Former staffers talk of the high-pressure work environment and weekly firings. And they go into great detail about some of the Enquirer’s more notorious cover stories, from Elvis Presley’s funeral photo to the woman who was in the room when John Belushi overdosed.

What Landsman has constructed is a riveting account of something all of us have seen at the supermarket, whether or not you have ever picked up a copy. And he is careful in his approach, being honest about the sordid history without exonerating or painting any of his participants as villains.

“Scandalous” doesn’t break a lot of new ground in style, but it is a fascinating and essential examination of the media we consume and what consumes us. Mark Landsman meticulously lays out all the pieces, showing how the Enquirer has impacted world events, and how world events have impacted the Enquirer. It is a well-crafted and thought-provoking documentary that is sure to leave us all question our own part in this messy business.

“Scandalous: The True Story of the National Enquirer” is distributed by Magnolia Pictures and will be in theaters on Nov. 15.

GRADE: (★★★½)