Unfortunately, 'The Paper' misses 'Deadline U.S.A.'


I am not sure why I came out of "The Paper" feeling so depressed.

Maybe because I thought it would be about newspapers and it's not.

Or maybe because I compare all such movies with "Deadline U.S.A.," a moving and exciting picture made in 1951 that really is about newspapers and the role journalism can play in society.

"The Paper" is not about journalism or society. It is not about any concept. It is about personalities:

It is about the madcap-with-a-heart-of-gold metro editor of a New York tabloid played by Michael Keaton and his gruff-with-heart-of-gold editor, Robert Duvall, and his bitchy-with-a-heart-of-gold managing editor, Glenn Close.

I don't review movies, so I went to "The Paper" because I used to work for a tabloid and thought the movie might have something to say about them in the same way "Broadcast News" had something to say about television.

But it doesn't. "The Paper" takes place at a tabloid newspaper and the setting is very realistic, but it is just a setting, just a backdrop.

(The paper you are holding in your hands is a broadsheet. If you double it over and rotate it 90 degrees, it forms a tabloid.)

The word tabloid has become so associated with sensationalistic journalism that the tabloid I worked on in Chicago banned the term. We referred to ourselves as "modern size."

But the tabloid wars of New York -- there are currently three plus one broadsheet in a city that cannot profitably support that many -- might have been interesting grist for a movie.

Even more interesting might have been the question whether decades of extreme emphasis by tabloids on gore, violence and racial confrontation reflects the reality of New York or helped create it.

"The Paper" deals with none of this.

"The Paper" portrays tabloid journalists fighting to be responsible rather than sensational.

Why? Probably because you don't spend millions on actors' salaries today -- Keaton, Duvall, and Close do not come cheap, to say nothing of Randy Quaid and Marisa Tomei -- and risk having the audiences hate them.

Which is why "The Paper" is really just a feel-good comedy set at a newspaper. If there is a message here -- and this is definitely not a message movie -- it is that everything in life eventually turns out OK: journalism, the justice system, dysfunctional families, even emergency childbirth.

"Deadline U.S.A." was about people working their guts out, doing a good job and failing in one sense while succeeding in another.

Humphrey Bogart is the editor of The Day, the quality newspaper being run out of business by its sleazy competitor, The Standard.

All the journalists in the movie look like hell. (Almost everyone in "The Paper" looks terrific.) They are aging, dried-up and bitter.

They get a chance to do one last story that would expose a sleazy crime boss and possibly save The Day from extinction.

Along the way people are thrown into printing presses and reporters get beaten up. (In "The Paper" an editor is shot in the leg, but it is played for laughs.)

But Bogart cannot nail down the story because a key piece of evidence is missing. Then one night an elderly immigrant woman who has learned how to speak English by reading The Day comes into his office with the information he needs.

Bogart asks the woman if she realizes that she is risking her life.

"You are not afraid," she tells him in halting English. "So I am not afraid."

The next morning, the paper breaks the big story. The crime boss is exposed. And The Day is sold to its sleazy competition and the movie ends.

But not before the movie has told you something about newspapering and what it can do and how people respond to it.

You leave "Deadline U.S.A." wanting to become a newspaper person, even at the risk of having an uncertain future.

You leave "The Paper" wanting to go to Hollywood and make slick movies and have your future assured.

And the movie is slick. Plus, let me be the first to admit, good fun. There is only one real problem I had with it:

In "The Paper" every editor is deeply flawed. Each is either twisted, profane, drunk, uncaring, paranoid, shallow or supremely self-centered.

In real life, never.

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