Raising Questions--Journalism and Social Responsibility in the Movies

         On the 78th Annual Academy Awards, one of their custom montages was about movies that tackled so-called big issues. You could call them films with a social responsibility. Some of the choices, I felt, were odd to select, like Roland Emmerich's 2004 film The Day After Tomorrow. The film did indeed tackle the subject of global warming, but come on! It is an action/adventure/disaster movie, and it is not to say that you cannot glean something from the movie, just that it is not the sort of film you pick to put alongside those with weightier subjects and dramatic impact. But I digress, a bit, if only because the films I would like to mention are not all of those films, but a couple of those that involve journalism.

         I am an electronic media major in the Journalism and Mass Communications Department, and I have learned a bit on journalism and the way it works as well as its history. I have also worked at a television news station (ABC affiliate WBKO in Bowling Green, KY) through which I have seen some of the ins and outs of a daily news operation. Beyond that, I am just plain interested in journalism and also in its potential impact. The news media have the potential to ask the big questions and to be the ones to challenge the government. They could, if willing, make a real difference, and engage the public by informing it of some injustice--if only the people would listen.

         One of the people it would be impossible to avoid in the history of television news media is Edward R. Murrow, which recent filmgoers got a little taste of in George Clooney's 2005 film Good Night, and Good Luck. I thought the film was a wonder. It was a jazzy, breezy breath of fresh air with an intelligence and wit to it. The greatest thing about it: It was not a "Hollywoodized" movie that compromised the material in order to entertain the masses. It kept its head and told the story of Murrow and his crew tackling the stronghold of Senator Joseph McCarthy straight. That is not to say that it does not have a heart, because I felt it really did by focusing on these people and the way it put strain on them and their personal lives. It showed the risk they took and the benefits of having done so. David Strathairn (playing Murrow) delicately balanced Murrow as a man one would trust as a television personality on top of seeming like a real person. It seems effortless, the whole affair, but that is only tribute to how well Clooney guided his crew along.

         I wish to comment on a slightly different note, how about Alan Pakula's 1976 film All the President's Men? This deals with another big event in journalists making a difference, with Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward uncovering the Watergate scandal. They got information, you should know, from second-in-command at the FBI Mark Felt, recently revealed as Deep Throat, the nickname ascribed to him since then and all that was known of his identity for years. The movie is also not dry and factual, but also does not compromise the integrity of the material. How do they do that? Well, I suppose one key, again, is the cast, led here by Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, two of cinema's best. They, like Strathairn in Good Luck, apply appropriate levels of charisma, along with being credible. The movie moves something like a thriller, and keeps Deep Throat in the shadows of the undercover parking lot, an ominous figure of a film noir kind of tradition. It remains entertaining and involving whilst being true to the events.

         Any movie based on real events has to keep their own sense of integrity intact while telling a story that is involving and engaging, which is a tricky balance to be sure. These films represent movies that also involve a level of social responsibility and, in part, are made with something of hope to engage people's mind to the fact that we should be involved in our world. If we do not question things, who is in control? It is our responsibility as citizens and part of different films' power is to engage our minds to engage our hearts into action. The filmmakers do this, sometimes, by reenacting history and reality can set in even further. Movies throughout history have tackled topics and raised issues that sometimes others are afraid to. They may not all be as incisive as The Day After Tomorrow, but it is good to know that somebody is raising the questions and doing what needs to be done if we are to retain a free society.

Jesse Gilstrap

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