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Saturday, February 26, 2011

This Just In (originally published 3/96)

It is one of the axioms of the movie business that you're inevitably going to lose those viewers whose occupation coincides with that of your film's main character. If your protagonist is a doctor, for example, all the doctors in the audience will be too busy noticing the mistakes the actor makes to get involved with the story. Likewise, architects can't fully enjoy movies about architects, plumbers will get distracted watching movies about plumbers, and so it goes.

That's one of the reasons I'm not rushing out to see "Up Close and Personal," starring Michelle Pfeiffer as a rising TV news star. Having spent some time a while back as a videotape operator, working with TV news types every day, I'm afraid I might just bring a bit too much perspective into the theater with me. Still, there are some excellent movies about television journalism. If "Up Close and Personal" has caught your interest, here are some other titles you might want to look for on home video.

"Reckless Disregard" (1985). Back in 1983, the CBS "60 Minutes" program and correspondent Dan Rather were sued by Los Angeles physician Carl Galloway over a report that portrayed Galloway as an unethical doctor involved in the fraudulent dispensing of prescription medications. This made-for-cable movie fictionalizes that case, changing the name of the news program to "Hourglass." Leslie Nielsen plays an arrogant reporter, serene in his confidence in his network's formidable legal talent. Tess Harper co-stars as the attorney for the plaintiff. She's strictly small time, but she has the truth on her side. Armed with proof that her client's incriminating signature on a prescription was in fact forged, she takes on the network Goliaths.

"The China Syndrome" (1979). This film will probably always be remembered as the eerily prescient drama that raised public consciousness about the dangers of nuclear energy mere months before the accident at Three Mile Island. Just as important in my mind, however, is its equally jaundiced look at the TV news game. Jane Fonda plays a reporter whose mounting suspicions about safety precautions at a local nuclear power plant are met with outright hostility by her bosses, who'd rather have her continue doing the cutesy puff pieces that help to prop up the newscast's ratings.

"Network" (1976). When it was initially released, playwright Paddy Chayefsky's satire on broadcast news at the network level seemed to border on nightmarish fantasy. His vision of what network news would look like if it were taken over by the programming department seemed outlandish with its scandalous gossip segment ("Miss Mata Hari and her skeletons in the closet"), its viewer call-in segment ("Vox Populi"),and its raving host ("the mad prophet of the airwaves"), a certifiable lunatic who fulminates nonstop to a studio audience of adoring fans. Now, 20 years later, heaven help us, it's all come true, and more. What looked like a fantasy in 1976 now looks more like a documentary.

"Broadcast News" (1987). After years of giving us a made-for-TV version of a television newsroom on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," producer James Brooks decided to give us a somewhat less adorable peek behind the scenes. Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks play a pair of solid, competent journalists who inherit the job of packaging an airhead anchor (William Hurt) as the voice of authority for the unsuspecting viewing public.

"A Face in the Crowd" (1957). Although it doesn't deal with television news specifically, I can't overlook screenwriter Budd Schulberg's early treatment of the dangers inherent in television's star-making power. Andy Griffith stars as Lonesome Rhodes, an appealing backwoods drifter who laces his country singing with cracker barrel philosophy. When a television talent scout (Patricia Neal) gives him a shot on the air, his folksy charm sends the ratings through the roof. Unfortunately, fame brings out the worst in Rhodes, revealing him to be a vicious, scheming manipulator who callously uses people, then casts them aside. Reproduced below, courtesy of Turner Classic Movies, is the film's disquieting trailer.

Schulberg's script highlights a thread that runs through most of these TV news movies -- a sense of alarm at the raw power of television being used to yoke star personalities to the dissemination of news and opinion. Come to think of it, maybe my hesitation in seeing "Up Close and Personal" has less to do with any potential annoyance at the filmmakers getting the details wrong and more to do with the uneasy sense that they may have gotten the big picture all too chillingly right.