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Page One: Inside the New York Times (Blu-ray Review)

24 Oct, 2011 By: Mike Clark

Box Office $1.1 million
$26.98 DVD, $29.98 Blu-ray
Not rated.

An engaging and even important documentary whose central flaw is actually closer to a miscalculation in semantics, producer-director Andrew Rossi’s melancholy portrait of the Times in techno-peril was criticized, amid its mixed-to-positive reviews, for lacking focus. I’ve seen it twice and didn’t have that feeling either time. How can you tell the story of newspapering today without dealing with a lot of side issues that really aren’t — such as online competitors (without any proven capacity for investigative reporting) who smugly want to cut you down several pegs or even hasten your demise? We’re talking bedlam here.

The mistake the marketers made was subtitling their documentary “Inside the New York Times” because there is infinitely more to the Times than what is presented here. Rossi’s tale is in some ways about the newspaper industry as a whole as it flirts with full collapse, using the Times as its main actor (and if you’re casting a movie about a big subject, you probably want to have the biggest superstar for your lead). No matter how the current crisis shakes out — with the complete death of print being the most apocalyptic of possible climaxes — Page One is likely to end up being a permanently valuable achievement because it will have captured where the industry was at a crossroads it had never come to before. A mere 20 years ago, most newspapers still had a license to print money.

For such a big story, there aren’t all that many central characters. Foremost is the brilliant Times media reporter David Carr, the kind of true-blue character the news biz used to have more of — though the fact that he’s a reformed crack addict who hit bottom and came back wise (as well as a wise-guy) probably means he’d have been unusual in any era. He is to this movie what James Carville was to Oscar-nominated The War Room, the wag you can’t keep from watching. Along with colleague Brian Stelter and Times media editor Bruce Headlam, we see him working in a rapidly changing news gathering environment in an atmosphere that’s something like (to borrow someone’s long ago description of an inept third basement’s defensive play) putting up a pup tent in a windstorm.

Among the tough decisions at hand are electing (or not) to get in bed with WikiLeaks and its notoriously shifty founder Julian Assange for a long series of front-page stories about the Afghan war — and yes, this part of the movie leaves an acrid taste. On the other hand, the documentary’s climax is something legitimately out of an old rah-rah-ish Frank Capra movie when Carr, through intrepidly exhausting old-school reporting, exposes the frat party office atmosphere (think: really bad “1977”) that reflected the crude managerial style of business magnate Sam Zell as he and his cronies were piloting the Tribune Company into the bankruptcy mountain. There is some priceless footage of Zell here, including the clip where he advocated half-jokingly (or perhaps even more) that a newspaper might serve more readers with a pornography page. Good girls don’t, as The Knack once said, and you can bet the Gray Lady was not amused.

There’s substantial material here (including some super clips from a 1953 Omnibus show) about how the Times has always shaped the news and to great extent still does. But just I’m writing these words comes the news that the Times is seeking to eliminate 20 newsroom positions and seeking buyout volunteers. Right now (online, too), the Times is where as a reader I want to go. But in many ways, particularly in cultural and pop-cultural arenas, the Washington Post is much diminished from what it was not that long ago — a point that Carl Bernstein, interviewed here, seems to concede. Bernstein shows up as well in one of this release’s short bonus featurettes, which are not unwelcome but subordinate to a movie that will probably go down as one of the year’s top documentaries, even though it does make you wish for a little more. But some of the last is due to the narrative’s speed and economy; its 91 minutes clip along pretty fast.

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