What better way for film audiences to explore the drama of a scandal or watershed moment in history than by seeing it through the eyes of the reporter painstakingly brought it to light? You might assume that since the journalist has a passive role in the dramatic event by merely reporting on it, films revolving around this would be dry and academic affairs. But it’s surprising how much life a good writer, director and, most importantly, an actor can bring to the proceedings. Real-life newsroom stories can be far more thrilling than we give them credit for.
10Hayden Christensen as Stephen Glass, “Shattered Glass” (2003) dir. Billy Ray
It’s rare that a journalist becomes the subject in their own story, but that’s what makes “Shattered Glass” so interesting and unique. A rarely-better Hayden Christensen plays Stephen Glass, a young reporter for the New Republic who was famously found to have fabricated quotes, sources, even entire events for his published stories. Christensen imbues Glass with an intriguingly arrogant vulnerability, a desperation to be liked and accepted alongside the rush of getting away with passing off his increasingly outlandish stories. His swift and dramatic fall from promising staff writer to persona non grata in the newspaper business shines a light on the seriousness with which journalists regard the trust that has been placed with them by the public.
9Tom Hanks as Ben Bradlee, “The Post” (2017) dir. Steven Spielberg
There are several entries on this list that take place in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and for good reason: it’s a period of immense cynicism, unprecedented political scandal, and widespread mistrust of the government. In “The Post,” the journalists at the Washington Post uncover documents that suggest the higher-ups in government, particularly Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, knew that the Vietnam War was unwinnable. Yet they not only failed to end the war, but actually went on to commit even more troops to combat zones. Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) is left to grapple with the responsibilities the press owes to the public and how loyalty to any administration at the expense of the people is unethical, a conversation as timely today as it was then.
8Burgess Meredith as Ernie Pyle, “The Story of G.I. Joe” (1945) dir. William A. Wellman
Is this film a bit of sentimental propaganda engineered by the war department? Probably. Is it also a deeply moving exploration of one of the greatest journalists of the early twentieth century? A Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, Ernie Pyle served as a war correspondent in both the European and Pacific theaters. He was known for humanizing the soldiers he came across in his reporting, including their names and personal stories to make them feel more real for the people at home. He was killed during the Battle of Okinawa just two months before “The Story of G.I. Joe” was released.
7Michael Sheen as David Frost, “Frost/Nixon” (2008) dir. Ron Howard
“Frost/Nixon” is an incredible example of the real-life journalist on film, because in a way it shows what would happen if a TV personality like Carson Daly suddenly decided to transform himself into an investigative reporter. No one takes David Frost seriously in this film. Who is this failed game show host who’s going to interview the former president of the United States, anyway? Michael Sheen does a wonderful job of showing multiple sides of Frost, the over-confident TV star who thinks he can get by on charm, the past-his-prime national joke who desperately needs a hit and, most interestingly, the determined interviewer. In the beginning, he’s genuinely terrible at it. But gradually, he grows into the role and somehow manages to get the Holy Grail: what amounts to a confession from the notoriously cagey Richard Nixon.
6Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, “Spotlight” (2015) dir. Tom McCarthy
“Spotlight” is a masterclass in creating a palpable sense of drama and deep emotion out of a fairly straightforward story about newspaper reporting. In the early 2000s, a team of journalists at the Boston Globe uncovered widespread sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. Not only were priests implicated in the abuse of children, but evidence was found to show that the Church had knowledge of these activities and in many cases aided in covering them up. It’s a large ensemble cast of actors playing the team of journalists on this case, but Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes gets the lion’s share of the emotional material, as we see his growing horror and outrage that such monstrous abuses of power could be carried out and hidden for so long.
5Sam Waterston as Sydney Schanberg, “The Killing Fields” (1984) dir. Roland Joffe
In “The Killing Fields,” we follow an American reporter (Waterston), his Cambodian translator (Haing S. Ngor, who is one of only two non-professional actors to win an Academy Award), and photojournalist (John Malkovich). They are flung into a Cambodia utterly decimated by Pol Pot and the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime, and their experiences there serve as a reminder of the extreme dangers on-the-ground reporters take on in their line of duty. Notably, “The Killing Fields” does not ignore the incredible danger for locals who aid American journalists: while foreigners can be evacuated by their embassies, locals have no easy means of escape and are often left to deal with the repercussions alone. Waterston puts in a remarkable performance as he balances his role as an objective war correspondent with the tremendous guilt over the harm he’s caused to his translator by his presence.
4Jake Gyllenhaal as Robert Graysmith, “Zodiac” (2007) dir. David Fincher
So often films about journalists depict them as standing apart from the political establishment, responsible for providing a check on their potential abuses. In, “Zodiac,” we see Graysmith, a political cartoonist, and other journalists actively working with the San Francisco police department to catch the Zodiac killer. It’s also a reminder that while sometimes hard work and long thankless hours of research result in journalists uncovering a major plot or solving a mystery, sometimes it goes the other way. Sometimes they’re left without a sense of closure.
3Warren Beatty as John Reed, “Reds” (1981) dir. Warren Beatty
“Reds” was a passion project for Warren Beatty, who not only starred in the film, but also directed, produced, and co-wrote the screenplay for it. He plays John Reed, the American journalist who would write the highly influential first-hand account of the Russian Revolution, “Ten Days That Shook the World.” Part traditional historical romance and part faithful rendition of Reed’s on the ground reporting in Russia, Beatty balances the exploration of a journalistic legend with his place in a larger cultural context.
2David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) dir. George Clooney
Where “Good Night, and Good Luck” truly succeeds is not in telling the story of one scandal or major event, but rather in capturing the mood of a very specific moment in broadcast news history. At its heart is David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow, a towering figure in radio and television news coverage, a man whom all of America knew and trusted. His tremendous moral compass is on display here as he faces off against Joseph McCarthy and the scare tactics of the US Cold War propaganda machine. With his intelligent and restrained performance, Strathairn emphasizes the role the press has in checking the worst excesses of a government that capitalizes on mob mentality to further its own agenda.
1Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, “All the President’s Men” (1976) dir. Alan J. Paluka
“All the President’s Men” represents the pinnacle of this genre, right from the opening credits where letters are shown forcefully typed onto a page, each keystroke taking on the sound of gunfire. In it, journalists Woodward and Bernstein begin an investigation that will eventually implicate Richard Nixon in the Watergate scandal and lead to his resignation. Their work is meticulous and the film never shies away from how utterly tedious it could be. But with a masterful script from William Goldman, it ramps up a slow-burning tension as the revelations come faster and faster until the two journalists stand in awe of the incredible story they’ve somehow uncovered.