Ben's Top Pick for January
Absence of Malice (1981) & The China Syndrome (1979)
Though I come from "Hollywood royalty," I grew up in Washington, D.C., in a family fully ensconced in a combination of politics and journalism. My dad had been Robert Kennedy's press secretary and president of NPR. Movies were the business of those other Mankiewicz's out on the West Coast. My grandfather, Herman, wrote Citizen Kane; his brother Joe wrote and directed All About Eve; Joe's son Tom wrote the first two Superman movies and three Bond films; my cousin John was a writer on House of Cards and now writes for Bosch; his father, my Uncle Don, wrote I Want to Live.
And I was visiting Los Angeles when I first heard that ridiculous phrase, "Hollywood royalty." I'm certain it was the summer of 1988 because my cousin Molly Mankiewicz had her first birthday. Naturally, she's now a budding producer at MGM. Anyway, I went to a party invited, if memory serves me, by a friend. When I was introduced to the party's host, he sort of clicked his heels together, bowed--yes, bowed--and said, "Hollywood royalty." I was utterly baffled, assuming Larry Spielberg or Britney Selznick must be entering behind me. Nope, this was my "Welcome to L.A." moment, though I wouldn't move here for another 13 years.
Though I was 21 and should've known better, I didn't; a sign of things to come it turns out. Anyway, I quickly realized that despite my father's accomplishments, the family's success--and our notable failures--are defined by my grandfather, great uncle, uncle and cousins. Sure, politics and journalism are important but Hollywood defines America (OK, that's not really true but it's a solid sentence. Sounds dramatic).
Truth is, politics and journalism, the two businesses that put me through high school and college, remain my first two loves (wait, second two- I have a daughter and a wife. Also baseball. And movies. So they're like fifth and sixth, but still important). Given that rather extended background, I heartily recommended our prime-time lineup on the 21st.
Absence of Malice is a first-rate journalism picture about the repercussions of printing a false story identifying a beer distributor, played by Paul Newman, as a suspect in the disappearance of a labor leader. As soon as it was screened for the press, journalists began condemning it as a Hollywood smear campaign against investigative reporters.
Thirty-seven years later, the argument largely fails to hold up. First, Absence of Malice drew its inspiration from a series of true stories. Screenwriters Kurt Luedtke and David Rayfiel (Rayfiel was uncredited) maintained the movie was based on the son of a convicted gangster from Detroit. They also seem to have drawn from a series of embarrassing gaffes by respected, mainstream newspapers. The Washington Post-- less than a decade after saving the First Amendment in the Pentagon Papers case, then bringing down a criminal presidency with the Watergate investigation-- was forced to return a Pulitzer Prize after it became clear the story that won the prize was fabricated. The Post also had to apologize for running a gossip column that suggested President Carter had bugged Blair House. Then, famously, Carol Burnett successfully sued The National Enquirer for libel.
Sally Field plays the reporter who runs the false story on Newman, then tries to undue the damage by uncovering the motives of who fed her the bad information. It's a solid, gripping, important story that unwraps the challenges journalists face when powerful, wealthy and duplicitous forces use reporters to further their own interests.
If there was a valid criticism of the movie at the time, it came from Lucinda Franks, a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter writing for the Columbia Journalism Review. Franks wrote that the movie "grotesquely distorted" newspaper reporting, not because Field and her editor are unethical, but because they are stupid.
The China Syndrome, which follows Absence of Malice, is another quality journalism movie and it's the story of a partial meltdown at a nuclear power plant. It did moderate business before getting the kind of publicity only Sidney Falco could drum up: 12 days after its release, a stuck valve on reactor number two at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA led to a partial meltdown remarkably similar to the plot of The China Syndrome. Suddenly, the dangers of nuclear energy were front-page news turning the movie into a box-office hit. Granted, it came at the cost of putting thousands of lives at risk in Central Pennsylvania. But still...
The story both mocks and salutes local news. Jane Fonda plays a reporter more interested in being a TV star than a serious journalist. But when she and her cameraman, played by Michael Douglas (who also produced the picture), witness the meltdown, she elevates her game.
Like Absence of Malice, The China Syndrome examines the pressure brought to bear against the press by powerful, moneyed interests. It takes courage for journalists to stand up to power, whether in the form of corporations trying to cover up a potentially deadly disaster...or scheming federal investigators willing to break the law to make a case...or politicians regularly undermining the credibility of journalism by labeling any story they don't like as "fake news."
Movies have long celebrated the vital role journalism plays in a functioning democracy, from His Girl Friday, Ace in the Hole and -30- to Network, All the President's Men and Spotlight. Not to mention The Post, with Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, in theaters now and well worth seeing. There have been plenty of memorable movies about reporters doing their jobs and putting their careers-- sometimes their lives-- on the line to tell us the truth. Absence of Malice and The China Syndrome are on that list. They're all worth revisiting in 2018, when the stakes have never been higher for journalism in America.
by Ben Mankiewicz