Woodward and Bernstein are excellent reporters, but face it – they're pretty dorky. Now, Ron Burgundy? That's a media man worth remembering. For all of the films about this honorable profession, many of the best are the ones that depict media professionals not as true professionals – civil, buttoned-up and following the rules – but as goofy weirdoes who have little regard for basic human decency. Just in time for Burgundy's return in Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues, here are a dozen excellent movies that depict the humorous, peculiar and morally corrupt sides of journalism. —Peter Holslin
Set in the golden age of yellow journalism, this screwball classic stars Rosalind Russell as a star reporter who's determined to get out of the game, but gets sucked right back in when her two-timing ex-husband – the editor of a big city paper, played by Cary Grant – convinces her to cover one last story. With madcap pacing and crackling humor, the film offers a glimpse into the dirty tricks journalists used in the era before pesky "ethics" came along, culminating in an amazing setpiece in which a soon-to-be-hanged convict, now escaped, gets stashed in a courthouse office desk.
Billy Wilder's expertly crafted noir tells the story of Chuck Tatum (Kirk Douglas), a disgraced reporter who whips up a media frenzy about a man stuck in a cave. Taking control of the juicy story – and with an eye towards getting on front pages across America – he soon isn't just reporting the news, but actually controlling it, cutting rivals out of the loop while keeping the man stuck beneath rocks and sand. And when the man's uncaring wife doesn't want to play along, he ruthlessly abuses her – all to maintain the human-interest angle that readers love so much. It's the ultimate media morality tale.
The timeless relationship between press and publicist never looked so toxic as it does in this noir classic. Burt Lancaster plays J.J. Hunsecker, a celebrity gossip columnist at the top of New York's media elite, who recruits the two-faced press agent Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) to crush a jazz guitarist in love with Hunsecker's young sister. With eminently quotable dialogue from Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman, plus a tense score from Elmer Bernstein, Sweet Smell of Success stands as a stylish testament to the depths of human horribleness.
Jon Stewart and Bill O'Reilly have nothing on Howard Beale. Billed as the "mad prophet of the airwaves," the crazed network TV anchor – played by Peter Finch in this dark, multiple-Oscar-winning satire directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Paddy Chayefsky – masters the art of edu-tainment punditry with his quasi-spiritual, anti-establishment ramblings. Much of the film's cynical commentary on American TV culture seems prescient today, and Beale's infamous "mad as hell" speech still feels as timely and cathartic as it did nearly 40 years ago.
Eighteen years before Johnny Depp portrayed Hunter S. Thompson in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Bill Murray did his take on the famed gonzo journalist in this wacked-out comedy directed by Art Linson. Where the Buffalo Roam draws from a number of Thompson's writings – mainly "The Banshee Screams for Buffalo Meat," an obituary for Thompson's friend and attorney Oscar Zeta Acosta, published in Rolling Stone in 1977 – offering more journalistic hijinks than you can stuff into a four-foot bong.
If there were ever a movie about how not to be a journalist, Absence of Malice would be it. Taking its title from a legal doctrine pertaining to defamation, this Sydney Pollack-directed drama follows Miami Standard reporter Megan Carter (Sally Field) as she royally bungles a complicated story about a murder investigation. After she burns a key source (who then commits suicide), falls in love with the subject of her story (somewhat understandably, considering it's Paul Newman), and takes everything she's told at face value, her incompetent editor offers her a promotion. Clearly, the problems with this paper start at the top.
Unraveling an elaborate story involving drug smuggling, high-level police corruption and bigamy, Chevy Chase's Irwin M. Fletcher never once uses a notebook or pen. Instead, this L.A.-based investigative reporter relies on an impressive collection of costumes, pulling himself through dicey situations while dressed at various points as a junkie, doctor, airplane mechanic, country club guest, insurance agent, and, um, Mattress Police officer. Chase's endless supply of lewd, smart-alecky wisecracks come in handy, too.
Director Ron Howard perfectly captures the zany energy of the newsroom – caustic office politics, vulgarity-laced editorial meetings, eccentric staffers – in this hilarious and incisive depiction of a scrappy New York City metro daily à la the New York Post. But it's Michael Keaton's brilliant take as a Coca-Cola-guzzling metro editor determined to get a killer front-page story, even at enormous risk to his marriage and career, that makes this the journalist's journalism movie. Glenn Close, Robert Duvall, Marisa Tomei and Randy Quaid also put in memorable performances.
There are no Woodwards or Bernsteins in Barry Levinson's wicked satire of electoral politics – only cable news talking heads and nameless newspaper stenographers who gobble up whatever slop gets served to them by a veteran D.C. spin-meister (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) on the White House payroll. Hired to defuse a presidential sex scandal days before the election, they whip up a bogus war with Albania, planning fabricated photo shoots and getting some help from a folksy songsmith played by Willie Nelson. Ironically, Bill Clinton's second term was swallowed by a legit sex scandal shortly after Dog was released.
It's thrilling, in a sickening kind of way, to watch hot-shot New Republic writer Stephen Glass (Hayden Christensen) grow increasingly desperate as he struggles to convince those around him that the story he wrote about a 15-year-old computer hacker wasn't actually fabricated. Based on a Vanity Fair article by Buzz Bissinger, Shattered Glass covers Glass' rapid rise and fall in the mid-to-late '90s, showing how he pulled off an epic journalistic swindle by convincing a prestigious Washington magazine to run articles full of made-up quotes, sources and scenes. An excellent Peter Sarsgaard plays Charles Lane, the editor who finally fires Glass' ass.
Riddled with jokes and featuring a star-studded cast of comedians, Anchorman may very well be the most ridiculous movie ever made about the media. In his iconic performance, Will Ferrell plays the No. 1-rated television news anchor in sunny, Seventies-era San Diego – a city that, according to him, was discovered by the Germans in 1904 and whose name means "a whale's vagina." Boasting perfect hair and enviable jazz-flute skills, this unapologetic male chauvinist butts heads with an ambitious new reporter and love interest, Veronica Corningstone. But he also faces off against a motley crew of rival news teams, including one led by a mustachioed, Spanish-speaking Ben Stiller.
Sixteen years after the fall of Romanian communist dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu, the owner of a TV station in a provincial town invites two unlikely guests – an alcoholic history teacher and an eccentric retiree best known for his Santa impersonations – to discuss whether their hamlet had played any role in the revolution. The resulting interview is a complete, utter train wreck, as an amateur staffer fumbles with the camera while irate viewers call in to pick apart the teacher's dubious claims of heroism. Every awkward moment is played for laughs, and the film beautifully captures the banality of political upheaval.