Truth, Spotlight Writers Talk Journalism at TCM Classic Film Festival

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by Scott Holleran (@ScottHolleran)

Kicking off the 7th annual Classic Film Festival in Hollywood was a 40th anniversary screening of 1976’s crusading reporter-themed All the President’s Men at Sid Grauman’s historic Chinese Theater. Turner Classic Movies (TCM) also featured a panel discussion on journalism in movies during the recent festival.

Speaking on the press in motion pictures were writer/director James Vanderbilt (Truth), Oscar-winning writer Josh Singer (Spotlight), broadcast news producer and author Mary Mapes (portrayed in Truth by Cate Blanchett) and journalist/editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., portrayed by John Slattery in Spotlight (screenplay). Bradlee was partly responsible for managing the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, the subject of Spotlight, which won Academy Awards for Best Original Screenplay and Best Picture. TCM host Ben Manckiewicz, who was a journalist earlier in his television career, moderated the discussion.

Everyone on the panel acknowledged that journalists are no longer trusted by the public. They examined why for forty-five minutes in the ballroom of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel where the first Oscars were handed out. Mapes, who often worked with Dan Rather, won a Peabody Award for breaking a story about abuse by American soldiers at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and took on CBS News as depicted in Truth (screenplay). She said that writing a book about her experience in journalism was “cathartic.” Mapes also said that she had entered CBS News looking at the profession as something of a church, and by the time she exited over Rather’s disputed and discredited report in 2004 on George W. Bush, she thought of journalism as being closer to a cult.

L to R: James Vanderbilt, Mary Mapes, Ben Bradlee, Jr., Josh Singer at TCM’s Classic Film Festival. Photo by Scott Holleran © Copyright 2016 Scott Holleran. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced without the permission of Scott Holleran.

The writer who adapted her book for the screen, Malibu-based James Vanderbilt (Zodiac, The Amazing Spider-Man, White House Down), told the audience that he remembered a time when journalism was the practice of reporting the facts of what happens, without an agenda or bias, and called for objectivity. As Vanderbilt, who sold his first screenplay before graduating from the University of Southern California’s film writing program and wrote this summer’s Independence Day: Resurgence, put it: “Not every story should have [an] intent.”

Spotlight co-writer Josh Singer, an Academy Award-winner who is writing a script about astronaut Neil Armstrong, agreed, stressing the importance of reporting as a process built upon getting facts and getting documents, which his scripts dramatize in detail with Spotlight and his feature writing debut, the Wikileaks drama The Fifth Estate starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Singer said he is currently working on the Neil Armstrong movie with Whiplashs Damien Chazelle attached to direct for Universal and a musical film about Leonard Bernstein for Paramount with Martin Scorsese as director.

Ben Bradlee Jr., whose 2013 bestselling biography of baseball giant Ted Williams has been optioned for a movie, raised the point that today’s media, including the vaunted Washington Post, made famous in All the President’s Men and recently bought by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, compete for dollars in a digital arena. Bradlee, who spent 25 years (10 as a reporter and 15 as an editor) with the Boston Globe admitted that, while Hollywood’s depiction of reporters often stereotypes journalists as a “pack of baying jackals” (William Atherton in Die Hard comes to mind) and major political candidates such as Donald Trump mistreat the press, he is less pessimistic than Mapes and others about the state of the press.

“Being a reporter is still rewarding and meaningful,” he told the audience.

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Former Box Office Mojo editor and partner Scott Holleran writes scripts and teaches media and storytelling workshops and courses in LA. He posts movie reviews on his blog, where he writes about news, culture, and ideas.

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