Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Big Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times

Excellent. David Carr steals the damn show.

(This review previously appeared in "ICON" and is reprinted with permission. Thanks, Trina.)


Instead of documentary filmmakers reporting on a subject or demonstrating their own style, an increasing number are content to feature a non-stop, yammering array of experts. Like being read a 3,500-word magazine article or attending a lecture where the speakers change every 30 seconds, this strategy does not contribute to first-rate filmmaking.

Andrew Rossi's Page One: Inside The New York Times, which covers the newspaper industry's tenuous status, isn't just about smart theories and grave predictions. It's about people's livelihoods. Even at the paper of record, no one is safe, a human component that elevates Rossi's film. We get much more than an absorbing think piece about uncertain times (or Times).

The director spent over a year following the goings-on at the Times' media desk, which was created in 2008 to cover the ever-changing media world—including the Times' own layoffs and financial problems. We meet Bruce Headlam, the no-nonsense editor. David Carr, the been-around-the-block star who is the paper's most passionate defender. Tech-savvy wunderkind Brian Stelter is a new breed of reporter and, possibly, an odd fit. He's astounded when reporters boast of writing stories that he saw on Twitter 12 hours ago. Executive editor Bill Keller, who recently announced that he's stepping down, steers the ship through choppy waters.

Though other sources elaborate on journalism's evolution, Rossi shows the real-life implications. There's a macabre aura to the media desk. Its staff exposes the limits of traditional mass media, which the Times represents. Stelter sums it up when writing about WikiLeaks' posting decrypted footage of a 2007 U.S. Army assault on Baghdad: "They just dropped it off on YouTube and waited for the world to find it." The Times' reputation as an indispensable news source is at risk. Online rebels like Julian Assange can provide information beyond the capabilities of a typical newsroom. Social media like Twitter and Facebook mean that anyone can share a story. And don't forget blogs, which is how Stelter, who ran TVNewser, reached national prominence before joining the Times at the preposterously young age of 21.

Reporter Tim Arango says landing at the Times once meant a 30-year career. Not anymore. We see veterans get laid off, including one whose interview is filmed against a sad background: her office belongings packed in bags. The battle between old world and new world exists at the Times. Carr, the raspy voiced, eloquently cantankerous media columnist, is a classic newspaperman and the film's central figure. During an announcement for a partnership between Vice Magazine and CNN, the magazine's founder, Shane Smith, declares that his special on Liberia trumps the Times' coverage. "Just a sec, time out," Carr interrupts. "Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just because you put on a f***ing safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do." He quips that Stelter is actually a robot assembled in the newspaper's basement whose purpose is to destroy him.

A former cocaine addict and welfare recipient, Carr has the survival skills of a cockroach. He represents the value of the New York Times and other newspapers: People go into the world and report stories. This is illustrated by one of the pointless new media vs. old media conferences that Carr attends. In the film, the 54-year-old battles it out with Newser, a Web site that collects major headlines which serve as links to stories. He holds up a print out of the site's home page. Then, he reveals the home page featuring headlines actually reported by Newser staff—it's riddled with holes. The Internet may allow us to get news instantly and for anyone to share an opinion on any story. But someone has to pursue those stories. That requires old-fashioned attributes like digging for facts in unpleasant places and interviewing the reluctant.

The New York Times has one of the best collections of reporters in the world, which is the source of the paper's influence: It provides news for so many other outlets. How much longer will that last before Gawker, Apple, or Google find a shortcut? Will reporting then become an undesirable trade like auto repair or plumbing? Rossi doesn't rely on talking heads or provide easy answers. He shows where journalism is headed, where it's been, and profiles the survivors finding their place in the reshuffling. That uncertainty makes Page One a captivating and honest film. [R]

No comments: