Hot Type: 150 Years of 'The Nation' (DVD Review)24 Oct, 2016 By: Mike Clark
Though Harlan County USA (1976) and American Dream (1990) are among the most deserving of all Oscar winners for feature documentary, filmmaker Barbara Kopple’s 2015 portrait of spiritually old-school stalwarts laboring in the digital age at America’s oldest continuing weekly magazine is predominantly for political junkies like myself.
Regardless of their political stripe, publications specifically grounded in ideas seem a little quaint in this age of tabloid politics (which have always existed in classic Warner Bros. tradition, to be sure). So here, yes, is The Nation dealing with, among other necessary distractions, the headache of jazzing up its website when the readership age demographic is somewhere in the 50 to 60 range and maybe even closer to the latter. And yet, we see that a lot of the staff (or at least junior staff) is made up of young turks raring to go in what will likely be an unforgettable working environment to recall in their later years, judging from my own still visceral peer working experiences back when I was a (cough) young turk myself. Despite the harrowing state of journalism that has imperiled everyone’s bottom line and salaries, you can get a sense of how competitive the profession still is by noting how intelligent the interns seem here.
Ubiquitous TV presence Katrina vanden Heuvel has been The Nation’s editor for over 20 years now — always model of low-key composure but with a eye-twinkling sense of humor. But if you really want to go back, the magazine grew out of the Civil War with an abolitionist background, entangled with the Republican Party until World War I and really hitting its stride with FDR’s New Deal in the Depression ’30s. Margaret Bourke-White writing on the Dust Bowl way back then is as good an example of the prototypical Nation article as anything else, one that gets some attention early in the documentary. And despite its compact font size, the list of former Nation writers that suddenly appears on screen somewhere around the midpoint all-out jammed the frame on my 75-inch Samsung — a journalistic heritage very much in keeping with The Nation having given Ralph Nader one of his first forums in the long ago Nader-as-a-good-guy days when he made his rep exposing car safety issues. (The magazine also did pioneer reportage on cigarette smoking decades before Mike Pence was still shilling for the tobacco industry). Kopple’s film would have benefited from more of this (Smiling Through the Apocalypse, which dealt with Esquire’s ’60s heyday, is a recent role model on how to mesh social history with anecdotes). Instead, Hot Type is more about the issue-to-issue tribulations of current-day grunt work, more in keeping with Page One: Inside the New York Times and The September Issue (that would be Vogue) — both of them docs with higher “grabber” quotients.
This said, there’s a long passage on the eternal hell of Haiti, which obviously synchs potently with the recent Hurricane Matthew despair in ways that Kopple couldn’t have foreseen. There’s also a lot about the Left’s ultimately stifled rebellion against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, following tradition of the Nation having taken one of the early leads in trying to put that famously progressive state’s most notorious figure this side of Ed Gein (Joe McCarthy) on the fast train to Cirrhosis-ville. The unavoidable archival shots of McCarthy’s top boot-licker/hit man Roy Cohn dovetail nicely with what we know about the latter’s crucial mentoring of the young Donald Trump, an unholy alliance that gets the time it deserves in the recent and superb "Frontline" doc, The Choice 2016, about this year’s presidential race. I was also digging the too-brief footage of Herman Cain, who returns here in something akin to a bad LSD flashback while listening to Their Satanic Majesties Request.
Leaving aside politics, many of the day-to-day editorial concerns here are universal: Writers not making their deadlines, writers who drive fact-checkers charged with prepping the final copy crazy, and the search for angels to bankroll the publication’s “impoverished” writers (a term uttered sans malice by former Nation editor Victor Navasky, whose Naming Names is an essential read on Hollywood’s Blacklisting era and a National Book Award winner). Of course, not every publication could boast of having Paul Newman as one of its benefactors, and there’s a really funny clip here of the actor/philanthropist’s joking (I think) lament that he ever listened to buddy E.L. Doctorow’s suggestion that he contribute to what became for Newman a money pit. Despite the preponderance here of what used to be called rumpled journalists (though now in better duds), we’re in headier company here than what we’d find in, say, a documentary about the publishing of Grit. To this point, vanden Heuvel notes that when she was growing up, Edie Sedgwick lived for two months in her sister’s bedroom to facilitate mother Jean Stein’s editing of her famous collaboration with George Plimpton — Edie: American Girl.