nziff ’11: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
dir. Andrew Rossi | USA | 2011 | 88 mins.
Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One is an out-and-out love letter to the Grey Lady, that bastion of journalism that is, like so much other old media, staring into an abyss-like uncertain future in the face of a rising digital culture. While its exploration of questions about the newspaper’s possible demise is rudimentary at best, the film does provide fascinating insight into the daily workings of the Times, showing how stories are made and re-made, and how the elements of a news item come together—often at just the right moment.
The star of the show is former-junkie-turned-intrepid-reporter David Carr, a gruff-voiced but amicable figure around whom a swirl of fellow Timespeople circulate, including the film’s three other main interviewees: Bruce Headlam, Carr’s editor on the media desk; Iraq-bound reporter Tim Arango; and twenty-something blogger-turned-professional-journalist Brian Stelter, the last of whom Carr is convinced is a robot sent to destroy him. (This joke probably falls flat without Carr’s idiosyncratic delivery.) Rossi and his film crew descended upon the paper at a time of crisis; there were challenges at every turn, with Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks ascendant, and a paywall on their website looking daily less like simply a talking point and more and more like an essential concession in order to weather the coming economic storm.
Alongside the WikiLeaks thread—which begins with a front-page piece by Stelter on the Collateral Murder video, one of the first mainstream reports, and the first to bring Assange’s loose ‘hacker’ conglomerate to public attention—the documentary delves into newspaper history, with mercifully brief high-school-level illustrations of the power of print journalism (Watergate; Ellsberg’s Pentagon Papers) before switching tracks with a trip to SXSWi where fragments of interviews with @ev and @dens are shown in between panel discussions in which Carr shuts down any opposition to the Times’ seemingly untouchable status as the paper of record. (To his credit, Rossi mentions Jayson Blair’s plagiarism and Judith Miller’s dodgy reporting, but these are the only direct, prolonged criticisms of the Times the director allows.) The film, which though brisk is never incoherent, flits quickly from one salient point to the next. This works to its advantage, allowing for the delivery of a fast-paced and wide-ranging survey in under 90 minutes, rather than a documentary bogged down by extraneous minute detail.
More interesting than the panel discussions Carr appears on (though far less wit-filled) are a selection of government hearings about print media, committees on which David Simon features far too fleetingly—at least in Rossi’s edit—but which provide some old-media-versus-new-media starch to offset the fluffy aspect of much of the rest of the film. Jeff Jarvis and Clay Shirky are interviewed, but neither new-media expert says anything new; it feels mandatory to include them in a documentary discussing these issues, though. A point of contention is the film’s apparent demonstration of a potential gender imbalance at the Times, although this would seem to be less a result of any deliberate hiring policy and more a question of access: according to an interview with Headlam, his desk oversaw nine reporters at the time of the film’s production, two of whom were women. They both declined to be interviewed for the film. This is not to say there were no women interviewed, or that there are no women in significant roles at the paper: there were, and there are.
There is a better film about the newspaper business and its inevitable digital transmogrification waiting to be made, one that is less fawning and conciliatory—and certainly one that is focussed on the industry as a whole rather than its shining paragon—but Page One, with its acerbic star and its unprecedented inner-sanctum access, and even given its inner-ADD, is massively entertaining, and remarkably insightful. It is also far from the “lite current-affairs segment” certain reviews (including the paper’s own) might have lead you to perceive it as.
The New Zealand International Film Festivals began on July 14 in Auckland; they start in Wellington on July 29, then travel to Dunedin, Christchurch, Palmerston North, and Hamilton throughout August, and Nelson, Tauranga, New Plymouth, Hawke’s Bay, Greymouth, Masterton, and, finally, Kerikeri in November.
Full information on all films in the programme is at the festival’s website.