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Three days of movies about the media

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When AFI Silver presents the American University Reel Journalism Film Festival this weekend in Silver Spring, it will feature several personal-appearance coups at high-profile revivals. For example, today's 7 p.m. kick-off of Broadcast News (1987) features a Q&A; with 48 Hours Investigates executive producer Susan Zirinsky - the model for Holly Hunter's whip-smart producer in James L. Brooks' savvy dramedy.

But some of the best movie-watching will come without add-ons, like the first two features tomorrow. Brooks Atkinson summed up the impact of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page when he wrote that it is "to journalism what What Price Glory? is to the Marines - rudely realistic in its style, but romantic in its loyalties and also audaciously profane."

AFI Silver screens the 1931 movie version at 11 a.m. In it, a manipulative editor (Adolphe Menjou) cajoles his reluctant star reporter (Pat O'Brien) into covering the execution of a radical cop-killer. Hecht and MacArthur compress the action until it's as tight as a snare drum; the dialogue erupts in fusillades, rat-a-tat-tat. The playwrights' love-hate relationship with their subject creates a perilous but exhilarating balance between nostalgia and expose.

It's not just the lickety-split construction and the juicy newsmen's argot that have made this the most filmed and revived play of its era, but also the latitude of interpretation that Hecht and MacArthur's complex point of view allows. Director Lewis Milestone underlines the action with a take-charge style full of showy editing and tracking shots. This Howard Hughes production also features a prize crew of press clowns, including Edward Everett Horton.

This Front Page is even more lowdown than Howard Hawks' crackling romantic-comedy remake, His Girl Friday. So the perfect choice to play back-to-back with it at AFI Silver (tomorrow, 1 p.m.) is Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). Billy Wilder's corrosive attack on scoop-crazy reporting stars Kirk Douglas at his most unabashedly vicious. Douglas plays a comeback-hungry journalist who sees a man stuck in a cave as a ticket back to the big time.

Made in 1951 and based on the infamous 1925 Floyd Collins case, the movie presages the growth of tabloid sensationalism, 24-hour cable and reality TV. It also features some of the coldest earthy wit in movie history, such as the victim's wife explaining "I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons."

A panel led by former New Republic editor Charles Lane and moderated by Margaret Engel of the Newseum follows the screening of Shattered Glass (tomorrow, 3:15 p.m.), Billy Ray's lucid, under-honored story of Lane's confrontation with fabricator Stephen Glass. (Both Peter Sarsgaard as Lane and Hayden Christensen as Glass are superb.)

Tomorrow night at 7:15, the festival augments a screening of Ray's model for Shattered Glass, All the President's Men (1976), with discussion by former Nixon special counsel Leonard Garment; Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity; and Washington Post executive editor Len Downie.

Foreign correspondents take center screen Sunday. No movie has captured the physical and moral dangers of a war reporter's job with more heart-stopping immediacy or a richer sense of irony than the best American movie of 1983, Under Fire (3:30 p.m.). The film's commentary on the "objective" position of journalists seems more telling than ever in the 21 years since Under Fire premiered. The movie's lead characters are seasoned pros whose neutrality gets tested during Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

Gene Hackman, a newsweekly whiz turned network anchor, Nick Nolte, an ace photographer, and Joanna Cassidy, an intrepid radio reporter, all have to combat their ingrained fear of political commitment. What makes them cross the line is the closeness Nicaraguans feel to Americans: Dennis Martinez, the Nicaragua-born pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, is a local hero.

Nolte enters into an ethical no man's land when, with the tacit support of Cassidy, he fakes the picture of a rebel leader to make him look alive, thus reviving the revolution.

Director Roger Spottiswoode and screenwriter Ron Shelton don't attempt a definitive stance on Nicaragua; you won't find out by watching this movie whether Cuba armed the Sandinistas. The film's splendidly achieved goal is to open viewers' minds and shake them out of categorical thinking - about journalists as well as Third World rebellion.

After the screening, war photographers Molly Bingham, Joe Galloway and Lois Raimondo will discuss journalistic ethics during wartime.

The Killing Fields (Sunday, noon) directly parallels the theme of international media responsibility. It takes off from the history of America's failed policies toward Cambodia that culminated in the dictatorship of Pol Pot and the genocidal ravages of his rural-based Khmer Rouge fanatics.

The Killing Fields (1984) describes how Sydney Schanberg, a correspondent in Cambodia for The New York Times, escaped the country in 1975 and later attempted to locate his native assistant Dith Pran, who with millions of other anti-communists or nonaligned Cambodians was left to the mercy of the Khmer Rouge. Directed by Roland Joffe and written by Bruce Robinson, the film has an emotional power that's undeniable.

Of course, with the 1996 murder in Los Angeles of Haing S. Ngor, the Khmer Rouge victim who played Dith Pran, and the apparent suicide this year in New York of Spalding Gray, who played the U.S. consul, the production has acquired a haunted ambience. But the film itself evokes a feeling of Doomsday dislocation. The collision of communism and capitalism in a mystical, tropical climate leaves a trail of dismembered landscapes and blasted villages, smashed pop bottles and ripped-off Mercedes Benz insignia, and, everywhere, broken bodies, streaming blood and vistas of skeletons.

Some have seen a certain moral arrogance in the way the American takes Pran's fate so completely upon his shoulders. It's as though Schanberg and the United States are solely to blame, and neither Pran's own history nor his country's has anything to do with what's happening to him. So it's a choice opportunity to have Schanberg himself available for questioning after the movie.

Check www.AFI.com/Silver for updates; call 301-495-6720 for general information or 301-495-6700 for pre-recorded program information. Tickets: $8.50 for general admission, $7.50 for AFI members, students and seniors.

At the Charles

Cinema Sundays at the Charles presents John Crowley's Intermission, starring Colin Farrell, Colm Meaney and Shelly Henderson in a kaleidoscopic Irish caper film. Coffee and bagels: 9:45 a.m. Showtime: 10:30 a.m. Admission: $15. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.cine masundays.com.

At noon tomorrow and 9 p.m. Thursday, the Charles' revival series showcases one of Burt Lancaster's most haunting performances: the title role of the 1968 film adaptation of John Cheever's story The Swimmer. Information: 410-727-FILM or www.theCharles.com.

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