Three days of movies about the media

FILM

Picks include `Broadcast News,' `The Front Page'

FilmColumn

March 26, 2004|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

When AFI Silver presents the American University Reel Journalism Film Festival this weekend in Silver Spring, it will feature several personal-appearance coups at high-profile revivals. For example, today's 7 p.m. kick-off of Broadcast News (1987) features a Q&A with 48 Hours Investigates executive producer Susan Zirinsky - the model for Holly Hunter's whip-smart producer in James L. Brooks' savvy dramedy.

But some of the best movie-watching will come without add-ons, like the first two features tomorrow. Brooks Atkinson summed up the impact of the Ben Hecht-Charles MacArthur play The Front Page when he wrote that it is "to journalism what What Price Glory? is to the Marines - rudely realistic in its style, but romantic in its loyalties and also audaciously profane."

AFI Silver screens the 1931 movie version at 11 a.m. In it, a manipulative editor (Adolphe Menjou) cajoles his reluctant star reporter (Pat O'Brien) into covering the execution of a radical cop-killer. Hecht and MacArthur compress the action until it's as tight as a snare drum; the dialogue erupts in fusillades, rat-a-tat-tat. The playwrights' love-hate relationship with their subject creates a perilous but exhilarating balance between nostalgia and expose.

It's not just the lickety-split construction and the juicy newsmen's argot that have made this the most filmed and revived play of its era, but also the latitude of interpretation that Hecht and MacArthur's complex point of view allows. Director Lewis Milestone underlines the action with a take-charge style full of showy editing and tracking shots. This Howard Hughes production also features a prize crew of press clowns, including Edward Everett Horton.

This Front Page is even more lowdown than Howard Hawks' crackling romantic-comedy remake, His Girl Friday. So the perfect choice to play back-to-back with it at AFI Silver (tomorrow, 1 p.m.) is Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival). Billy Wilder's corrosive attack on scoop-crazy reporting stars Kirk Douglas at his most unabashedly vicious. Douglas plays a comeback-hungry journalist who sees a man stuck in a cave as a ticket back to the big time.

Made in 1951 and based on the infamous 1925 Floyd Collins case, the movie presages the growth of tabloid sensationalism, 24-hour cable and reality TV. It also features some of the coldest earthy wit in movie history, such as the victim's wife explaining "I don't pray. Kneeling bags my nylons."

A panel led by former New Republic editor Charles Lane and moderated by Margaret Engel of the Newseum follows the screening of Shattered Glass (tomorrow, 3:15 p.m.), Billy Ray's lucid, under-honored story of Lane's confrontation with fabricator Stephen Glass. (Both Peter Sarsgaard as Lane and Hayden Christensen as Glass are superb.)

Tomorrow night at 7:15, the festival augments a screening of Ray's model for Shattered Glass, All the President's Men (1976), with discussion by former Nixon special counsel Leonard Garment; Charles Lewis, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity; and Washington Post executive editor Len Downie.

Foreign correspondents take center screen Sunday. No movie has captured the physical and moral dangers of a war reporter's job with more heart-stopping immediacy or a richer sense of irony than the best American movie of 1983, Under Fire (3:30 p.m.). The film's commentary on the "objective" position of journalists seems more telling than ever in the 21 years since Under Fire premiered. The movie's lead characters are seasoned pros whose neutrality gets tested during Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution.

Gene Hackman, a newsweekly whiz turned network anchor, Nick Nolte, an ace photographer, and Joanna Cassidy, an intrepid radio reporter, all have to combat their ingrained fear of political commitment. What makes them cross the line is the closeness Nicaraguans feel to Americans: Dennis Martinez, the Nicaragua-born pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, is a local hero.

Nolte enters into an ethical no man's land when, with the tacit support of Cassidy, he fakes the picture of a rebel leader to make him look alive, thus reviving the revolution.

Director Roger Spottiswoode and screenwriter Ron Shelton don't attempt a definitive stance on Nicaragua; you won't find out by watching this movie whether Cuba armed the Sandinistas. The film's splendidly achieved goal is to open viewers' minds and shake them out of categorical thinking - about journalists as well as Third World rebellion.

After the screening, war photographers Molly Bingham, Joe Galloway and Lois Raimondo will discuss journalistic ethics during wartime.

The Killing Fields (Sunday, noon) directly parallels the theme of international media responsibility. It takes off from the history of America's failed policies toward Cambodia that culminated in the dictatorship of Pol Pot and the genocidal ravages of his rural-based Khmer Rouge fanatics.

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