New York — As an entry into the pantheon of great newspaper movies, Steven Spielberg's Pentagon Papers drama The Post is inked with deep affection for the analog apparatus of the newspaper business, circa 1971: the hum of broadsheets rolling through the presses, the metal clanking of handset type, the thump of a newsstand's morning delivery.
The lede on The Post, which opens nationwide on Friday, is that it has resurrected a fabled chapter in journalism history to shed light on today's battles between the press and a White House that critics claim is disdainful of the Fourth Estate.
And if Spielberg's film is as timely as a morning edition blaring an urgent headline, it's also a knowing entry in a long-running series: the newspaper movie. It's a section of cinema that might not fill a Sunday paper but, movie for movie, has a higher batting average than most any genre. And if you think that's a biased opinion, of course it is. We reporters love to see ourselves on screen, in all our khaki glory, depicted as crusading heroes for the truth — and it doesn't hurt when the likes of Tom Hanks and Robert Redford play us.
But it's worth remembering that one of the greatest films ever made, Citizen Kane, is a story laid out for an inquisitive obituary newsreel producer. From The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) to last year's Jackie, reporters are often stand-ins for the audience, the ears to a good story. In other films, journalists are a less cloak-and-dagger version of detectives, following leads and piecing together a mystery.
It's a surprisingly robust genre, from Humphrey Bogart's heroics in Deadline - U.S.A. (1952) to the romance of Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in Frank Capra's It Happened One Night (1934). Jimmy Stewart lands in the canon not once but twice, for his investigative Chicago newshound in Call Northside 777 (1948) and his tabloid scribe in The Philadelphia Story (1940).
Those are all good entries but the following 10 films are truly above-the-fold. (Rest assured, if we were counting TV news, Michael Mann's The Insider, Sidney Lumet's Network, James L. Brooks' Broadcast News and Adam McKay's Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy would be high on this list.)
1."All the President's Men" (1976)
The story of Watergate was well known by the time Alan Pakula's film came out. It shouldn't have been so gripping. After being re-watched a dozen times, it shouldn't be so gripping. It remains the most indelible and inspirational movie about journalism and a master class in, among other things, cinematography (courtesy Gordon Willis) and phone acting (courtesy Redford). Still, The Post is a necessary double-bill to All the President's Men, which edges Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham out of the story.
2. "His Girl Friday" (1940)
The 1928 Broadway play The Front Page has for decades since been a boon to the movies, including several terrific adaptations beginning with the recently restored 1931 film. But Howard Hawks' version, which flipped the reporter character female (played by the brilliant Rosalind Russell), is simply cinema at its most sublime. The news business is fast-paced but His Girl Friday is a blur; it's been clocked at 240 words per minute, about double the rate of normal speech.
3. "Sweet Smell of Success" (1957)
The dirtier side of the funny papers is turned out in this gloriously nasty noir about a megalomaniac columnist (Burt Lancaster) and a desperate press agent (Tony Curtis). The shadows and the dialogue ("The cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river") are to be savoured.
4. "Zodiac" (2007)
Obsession is the defining quality of David Fincher's sprawling, open-ended drama about San Francisco's Zodiac killer. Not only are its characters obsessed with the case, Fincher's paranoid, searching movie is itself subsumed by it. Especially good is Robert Downey Jr.'s charming, swaggering journo Paul Avery.
5. "Ace in the Hole" (1951)
"Bad news sells best. 'Cause good news is no news," says Kirk Douglas' plotting, amoral reporter in Billy Wilder's yellow journalism classic. It's a still-scathing indictment of sensationalist journalism, in which Douglas' Chuck Tatum stumbles onto a scoop in Albuquerque, and won't let go.
6. "Spotlight" (2015)
The best picture winner of two years ago has perhaps stolen some of the thunder of The Post. Spielberg's film bests Spotlight in star power and cinematic style, but Tom McCarthy's film is the one more at home in the newsroom, following a team of investigative reporters on the trail of a big and gravely important story.
7. "The Parallax View" (1974)
Another entry from Pakula who once said that while All the President's Men represented his hope, this conspiracy thriller captured his fear. Warren Beatty plays an investigative journalist trying to uncover a vast corporate conspiracy behind a political assassination, a tale rife with commentary on the Kennedy assassinations.
8. "Shattered Glass" (2003)
Journalists can make great movie villains just as they can heroes. In this often overlooked film, Hayden Christensen (right before he joined Star Wars) plays whiz kid New Republic writer Stephen Glass, the infamous fabricator who faked quotes, sources and entire stories.
9. "Shock Corridor" (1963)
Samuel Fuller's pulpy masterwork is a journalist's nightmare. Peter Breck plays a Pulitzer Prize-seeking reporter who, to capture a murderer, has himself committed to a mental institution. Inside, his own sanity starts slipping. In Fuller's hands, a quest for justice in '60s-era America is a quixotic and doomed one.
10. "State of Play" (2003)
This is a cheat because I'm choosing the dense, six-part BBC series of the political thriller, not the lesser 2009 movie adaptation. It is, quite simply, too fun to imagine Bill Nighy as editor of a major metropolitan newspaper. But I'll give the movie version, which cast Helen Mirren in Nighy's place credit, too, for its beautiful final montage: of a newspaper winding its way through the presses and being shipped out, all scored to Creedence Clearwater Revival's Long as I Can See the Light.