There’s much more than meets the eye when exploring the wild story of the National Enquirer and its colorful owner, Generoso Pope, Jr. The wacky, omnipresent tabloid has long been the butt of jokes, but it’s influence on contemporary media practices is palpable, and its origin story positively epic. But, under the guidance of director Ric Burns, Emmy-award winning filmmaker (and collaborator with brother Ken), the film style and story seem to be a mismatch. Told in very traditional Burnsian style (talking heads, slow pans over photographs), this execution doesn’t serve the potential promised by “Enquiring Minds: The Untold Story of the Man Behind the National Enquirer.”
And oh, the promise. Anyone familiar with the supermarket gossip rag knows there had to be a unique genius behind the wildly successful yet oddball tabloid, and the reality is much more than one bargained for. Owner Generoso Pope Jr. was the son of Generoso Pope Sr., a true emblem of the American Dream, the Don Corleone to Junior’s Michael. Senior immigrated from Italy alone, as a young boy, and worked his way from construction site water boy to owner of New York’s premiere cement company in the span of a couple of decades, becoming the guy who the Mafia dons would go to for help. When he decided to purchase the Italian language newspaper Il Progresso, it launched him into the upper echelons of society and politics, as he essentially owned the Italian-American public opinion and the Italian-American vote, as well as influence abroad in Italy. He became so influential that politicians all the way up to Presidents FDR and Truman courted his favor. Youngest son Generoso Jr. (Gene) was groomed to take over the newspaper business, which is what he did at age 23 after his graduation from MIT.
Soon thereafter, his father died, and young Gene took on the stature and political influence that his father had established in the city. Unfortunately, he soon squandered it during a local election when he told a candidate he wasn’t the pick of his godfather and benefactor, Mafioso Frank Costello. The candidate spilled the beans to the press that the other candidate had mob connections, which ruined the Pope family reputation. Gene became estranged from his brothers and mother, and set off on his own without any of his family’s money. With a healthy loan from Uncle Frank, Gene bought the New York Enquirer, and started the journey to what we know of as the National Enquirer today.
Gene’s original plan to serve justice with journalism was soon tossed aside in the race for sales, and soon the paper was filled with cute animals, cheesecake shots, and weird human interest stories: the original clickbait—in print. Upon observing some rubberneckers of a car accident on the freeway, Gene decided that what the people wanted was gore, and that’s what he gave them: horrific crime scene photos of mangled bodies on the front page. The urban exodus to the ‘burbs meant he had to innovate, originating the idea to put magazine racks in supermarkets, which meant he had to ditch the body horror for a different kind of rubbernecking: celebrity gossip, and American tabloid culture as we know it was born. Gene’s work ethic and quirks made the paper wildly successful, and the little paper he bought for $75K of borrowed Mafia funds was sold for over $400 million after his untimely death. Despite his colorful past, and odd work habits and obsessions (namely with having the world’s largest Christmas tree), his employees interviewed in the film only speak of him with reverence and respect.
The story, while a fascinating one, is told in a talking heads, archival photos, purely straightforward chronological style—and it must be noted, with a score and sound design that is so on-the-nose (switching from film noir to ‘60s style rock to big band jazz) and ubiquitous as to be incredibly distracting. Additionally, the only interviews are with people who worked with Gene for years, so the perspective is decidedly tipped. With such a rich fable—the story of immigrants, politics, the birth of gossip journalism for better or for worse—it seems a missed opportunity that more of the depths of nuance were not plumbed further. At times it seems hard to buy the argument put forth that the National Enquirer was all about pushing forward the field of journalism (though they were awarded a Pulitzer in 2010), or that journalism is better off for the influence of the Enquirer.
A tale that is far more than meets the eye, the lifestory of Generoso Pope, Jr. and his work at the National Enquirer seems far overdue and overlooked. Ultimately, because the story is so fascinating, it somewhat overcomes the stylistic limitations and tics “Enquiring Minds,” as it explores the ways in which one person’s innovations and influence shaped the tabloid culture and practices that our media landscape is so saturated in today. However, one almost wishes that it had landed in the hands of another filmmaker who would really elaborate and extend the nuance and themes further. [B-]