Page One: Inside the New York Times, which opens Thursday at O Cinema, will mean different things to different people.The people whom it would most benefit will not see it. The people who are offended by the notion that a newspaper should charge online readers, the people who think The Huffington Post Does Just Fine On Its Own, Thank You, will not pay $11 to be taught otherwise, and you can't blame them.
Director Andrew Rossi has put together a film so nebulous in theme that it can't really be advertised as anything interesting, and the people who are most excited about the film will be left yelling "Fer chrissakes, where's the NUT GRAF?"
And those people, the journalism nerds, the ones who will reverently hold their hands over their hearts when Gay Talese comes on screen, the ones who will want to shadowbox when David Simon speaks ever so briefly, they probably won't learn anything new. The business model is broken. We know. If you recognize the name Bill Keller, you already know the "news in the 21st century" argument, and Page One will not take you any closer to conclusions.
But it's damn fun to watch.
If you look at the film as an attempt to compile a cogent argument in any direction for the future of the media, it's a failure. If you look at the film as an attempt to look, as filmmakers claim, "inside the New York Times," it's at the very least a shallow attempt, shallow enough that the title of the film doesn't make much sense after you've seen it. But if you get a kick out of watching Times reporter David Carr smoke Camels and kick the shit out of people, crack open that piggy bank, because you've got a winner.
Unsurprisingly, the filmmakers picked up on Carr as a fabulous focal point -- he's a recovering addict turned smash-mouth media writer who seems to have realized that talking about how he used to be on welfare makes a great sound bite. But he's endearing and honest, and his experiences leading up to the Times gig -- "a textured life," he calls it -- have instilled in him "an immigrant's love of the place," and you see it unapologetically on display throughout the film.
At one point, he goes to the New York offices of Vice magazine to ask them about a new partnership they're developing. He is clearly aware of (absent) co-founder Gavin McInnes's well-documented disdain for "baby boomer media like the Times," though the film doesn't really explain any of this or why Carr is typing so aggressively while he's talking to them. Really -- it's pretty scary, that weird-shaped head of his pitched forward, his laptop's keyboard turning to dust beneath his fingertips.
And Carr cuts right to the point: "What the fuck is going on that you're doing business with CNN?" The super-cool Vice guys with the jackets but no ties almost crawl under the table.
And when Vice CEO Shane Smith says Vice was reporting on Liberian cannibalism while the Times was "writing about surfing," Carr cuts him off.
"Time out," he says, "Before you ever went there, we've had reporters there reporting on genocide after genocide. Just 'cause you put on a fuckin' safari helmet and looked at some poop doesn't give you the right to insult what we do. So continue. Continue."
Most of the film is like this. It doesn't seem as much a look at the Times as much as a piece to remind people that David Carr is one bad mother. Which, you know, is just as cool, but not really what it's being sold as.
Much of the latter half of the film looks at Carr as he reports his story on Sam Zell and the management of the Tribune Company, which was perhaps the biggest king-hell ass-whooping in the history of media reporting. It's a blast to watch, but it doesn't seem to help answer any of the questions raised throughout the film about the future of journalism, other than to suggest fairly tangentially that companies trying to stay afloat in the Internet age run the risk of dying horrible, firey deaths surrounded by pageview reports and pornography, which, in this business, seem to be growing more similar by the day.
So, Page One seems torn. If they wanted to paint a picture of life at the Times, they should have gone deeper into the paper than just the media desk and a few A1 meetings, though the editorial debate over coverage of the withdrawal of all "combat troops" from Iraq should be required viewing for anyone with a television.
If they wanted to look at the future of media, they could have talked to, you know, anybody else in the industry. They spent a weird amount of time talking about iPads, Jayson Blair (go Terps!) and Comcast's purchase of NBC Universal, but then they let Twitter co-founder Evan Williams quite literally wander in front of the camera without asking him much of anything.
All they've got is the Times, and even then, it seems no one asked how they plan to stay alive. Gay Talese, too, is utterly wasted -- journo-nerd eye candy of the first order, sure, but of no intellectual value in the film.
So if you want to understand how the New York Times is made, look elsewhere. If you want to know where the future of the news is headed, you won't find the answers here. But if you've worn out your copy of All The President's Men and need a little inspiration that coffee and cigarettes won't provide, check out Page One.