Journalists are rarely the stars of their own stories. Tucked behind stacks of documents in the backs of editing rooms, or hidden behind cameras in the midst of the action, the journalist is a sort of public apparition, a figure we often know only by their byline. In its obsession with this mysterious figure, Hollywood has offered up various hypotheses over the years about the journalist’s persona.
Most often, it has portrayed the journalist as a citizen hero who bravely risks everything in the pursuit of truth, and is rewarded for their courage with the prestige of exposing the next Watergate. In reality, however, coming across such revelations in one’s journalism career is a rare event. Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward may have struck it lucky by uncovering Watergate in the 1970s, but neither of them ever found another story of such importance in their careers.
Given its tendencies to distort or exaggerate, then, cinema might seem like a controversial place to start understanding journalists. However, with the guidance of Le Devoir film critic Andre Lavoie, gleaning a deeper understanding of journalists from the film reel might just be possible.
This month, Cinémathèque québécoise will host “Images du Journaliste” – a film series organized by Lavoie that aims to give a more nuanced portrait of the elusive figure of the journalist. The series comprises 12 films, mostly from American directors. Highlighting the diverse aspects of the journalist’s professional and personal life – from the difficulty of reporting on something that is politically controversial (All the President’s Men) to the personal temptation journalists sometimes face to forge seductive details in their articles (Shattered Glass) – it will also include presentations from various film critics of the Canadian media.
“I tried to present an accurate vision of how it is to be a journalist,” Lavoie told The Daily of the series. “I want people not only to see heroes but human beings that are involved in moral dilemmas and ethical problems.” In achieving this end, Lavoie’s line up is certainly successful. While films like All the President’s Men and State of Play reiterate familiar stereotypes of the journalist as the lone truth seeker, many others challenge and diversify this image. George Cukor’s Philadelphia Story (1940), for example, which screened this past Saturday, offers a kitschy and heart-warming glimpse of the journalist fumbling on the job as he falls in love with his subject. In the film, tabloid reporter Mike Connor (James Stewart) goes undercover to report on the wedding of wealthy main-line Philadelphia socialite, Tracy Samantha Lord Haven (Katherine Hepburn), and subsequently becomes enmeshed in a comic love quadrangle between Tracy, her fiancé, and her ex-husband. The film ends with Tracy rejecting a marriage proposal from Mike after she has broken off her engagement to her fiancé – leaving Mike with a story that’s full of juicy tabloid twists but marred by personal heartache.
Other films in the series showcase similar intersections between one’s profession and one’s heart: a reporter becomes emotionally invested in a community he once barely knew in Robert Morrin’s Windigo, and an amateur music journalist struggles to balance glamourous friendships with pressing deadlines in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. Viewed in its entirety, the series offers an assessment of journalists which seems bluntly balanced: sometimes journalists are good at their job and sometimes they fuck up.
Lavoie’s enterprise is undoubtably a laudable and much needed attempt to dispel misleading stereotypes, and anyone thinking about embarking on a career in journalism would do well pay attention. Lavoie warns, “If you see the reality of journalists with only All the President’s Men as a guide and become a journalist, you will be disappointed by the reality”; these films will help you move beyond the common cliches.
Images du Journaliste runs until January 29 at Cinémathèque québècoise, 335 Maisonneuve E. See cinematheque.qc.ca for listings and more information.