Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week sees the (limited) release of “Late Night,” which is set in the wild and revealing world of late night TV. It’s the latest of many examples of how the movies have sometimes been able to see television more clearly than television has been able to see itself.
This week’s question: What is the best movie ever made about television?
“A Face in the Crowd”
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages, Screen Rant, RogerEbert.com
Released in 1957, Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” remains a fascinating study about TV production and celebrity culture. Specifically, the film underlines the idea that trendy celebrities will stay relevant as long as they don’t do anything, well, horrible.
Andy Griffith delivers one of the most powerful feature debut performance as the drifter-turned-celebrity Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, while Patricia Neal grounds the film with her expressive eyes and undeniable star power as Marcia Jeffries. “A Face in the Crowd” holds up as one of the decade’s best films, and it effectively details how celebrities, or people with power, learn how to manipulate naive individuals into believing contrived truths. “A Face in the Crowd” also foreshadows Outrage Culture and how many celebrities go on being stars once the storm passes. As long as Lonesome Rhodes can smile and play the game, and without messing up too bad, he’ll be relevant in pop culture.
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“A Face in the Crowd” is a unique and timely film about television, misdirection, and the art of a narrative spin.
“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy”
“Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy” might be surreal, even outlandish, at times but it also captures the inner workings of a busy newsroom in surprisingly insightful ways. Whether it’s Ron practicing his pronunciation (or Veronica’s on-point reference to “non-regional diction”), his complaints over unflattering makeup, or the deadly pull of the teleprompter, there’s an underlying, sharp commentary at play here. Naturally, it’s mostly played for laughs, as with Ron and Veronica shooting insults at each other as the end credits roll — something that could feasibly be happening at TV stations all over the world unbeknownst to loyal viewers (we hope).
Movies about journalism tend to present the job as either too glamorous or too dull to accurately represent the profession, but “Anchorman” sidesteps this tendency by including enough of the outwardly dull daily minutiae of a working newsroom and injecting it with just the right amount of madness, as with the now-infamous line delivery of “PANDA WATCH!” from Paul Rudd’s Brian Fantana. It’s satirical, obviously, but there’s enough of the day to day dealings to ensure this still feels like a seventies-era work environment, for better or worse. It’s simultaneously horrifying and hilarious, much like many real-life newsrooms.
“Anchorman,” all the way. The over-the-top-ness captured by Adam McKay, Judd Apatow, Will Ferrell, Christina Applegate, and company, of a local San Diego newsroom in the 1970s was reflective of an accurate (albeit exaggerated) depiction of the outsized egos sometimes found in television newsrooms. The film was ridiculous in the best possible way.
Joanna Langfield (@JoannaLangfield) The Movie Minute
How can I even count the ways? We can start with its savvy perspective on the schism between news integrity and show business. Yes, this was a thing even 30 years ago. And God knows, things haven’t gotten any better since then.
We can cheer its fresh and honest take on women and men, working together to produce a newscast. Women have been an integral part of TV news for decades, even if most hit a glass ceiling. Here, we’ve got a female executive producer, as well as memorable women down the line (looking especially at you, Joan Cusak, who panics through one of the best on-the-job saves ever on film). And yes, there are dynamics at play. We’ve got love stories and why not? This is, after all, a movie that aims to entertains in a grounded way. Back when the film was written and filmed, workplace romances were not auto red flags, reasons to call human resources, if not a lawyer. The ones here are sweet (awww Albert Brooks) and sadly realistic. Who among us has not fallen for someone really not right for us?
And we can always hold dear to our hearts the moment when the older man, trying to put the younger smarty-pants woman in her place, lectures her “It must be nice to always believe you know better, to always think you’re the smartest person in the room”. It’s Holly Hunter’s miraculous reaction that seals the deal here. If you haven’t seen it, you must. And even if you have, see it again. Is there a woman alive who can’t relate?
“Broadcast News” wins my vote for best movie about TV, specifically the news. I recently had the misfortune to sit across the room from a TV that was playing Fox News for a few hours; a small mercy is that the TV was muted, but the screen was massive and I couldn’t look away. The entire time, all I could think about were flop sweats and tears faked for the camera, and about hard work and difficult, time-consuming reporting being cast aside in favor of pat storytelling and people who look good on camera. “Broadcast News” is prescient, and I wish it weren’t. I would also gladly have it playing on a loop in my house.
Max Weiss: (@maxthegirl) website: https://www.baltimoremagazine.com/blog/MaxSpace
It occurs to me that two of my all-time favorite movies—James Brooks’ “Broadcast News” and Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show”—are both about TV, so this choice is going to be the death of me. Both films address how television panders and distorts and repels nuance—and both are still remarkably relevant today. But since I’m honor-bound to pick just one, I’ll go with “Broadcast News,” a nearly perfect film (until a somewhat dicey epilogue) that is clearly a major influence on “Late Night.” The film is littered with unforgettable one-liners—”Wouldn’t this be a great world if insecurity and desperation made us more attractive” and, of course, “Except for socially, you’re my role model”—and perfectly captures the dynamic of smart, ambitious people trying to maintain their integrity in an increasingly superficial industry.
The entire cast has never been better: Holly Hunter giving us high-strung overachiever energy; Albert Brooks as the love-sick best friend, grimly aware of his own role in the romantic and professional pecking order; and William Hurt as a mildly charming mediocrity, blithely going about his life, unaware of his privilege. As a smart, feminist (until that ending—ugh!), romantic workplace comedy that feels both cynical and aspirational all at once, it’ll never be surpassed. (P.S. Ask me why I hate the ending on Twitter.)
“Morning Glory” stuck with me when I saw it in theaters in 2010, and I can appreciate it all the more now for what it did within the strict limitations of the genre the industry obviously insisted on. Becky (Rachel McAdams) is an ambitious news producer who may be another example of a workaholic rom-com heroine, but the script manages to squeeze in quite a bit of commentary about how the sexism she encounters at every turn.
She’s fired from one show she works for when her employers decide to bring in a guy with “more business experience,” she’s only put in charge of the titular news show because it’s struggling in last place in the ratings, and the type of journalism she specializes in is routinely dismissed, especially by veteran journalist Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford). The movie essentially becomes Becky successfully building not only a successful morning show, but a work family, all while embarking on a very inessential romance with a colleague. The only thing preventing her from fully embracing her new life and career is Ford, who basically creates a toxic work environment with his disdain for Becky’s profession.
The scene where Pomeroy tries to convince her to remain by actually doing his job is played like a traditional romantic moment, complete with Becky’s impossibly flowing outfit as she runs back to the Morning Glory set and is finally able to truly have the life and career she desires. “Morning Glory” refuses to devalue the kind of news Becky devotes herself to, or debate the merits of different media, mostly because it decides early on to take Becky’s work seriously and show the effort it takes to succeed at it. Screenwriter Aline Brosh McKenna went on to co-create “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” a deceptively lighthearted series with another deeply feminine perspective and a much darker premise.
“Network” is, of course, a movie about much more than any one subject. But it smartly uses television as both a world to examine in and of itself, and vehicle for a much wider satire of a society overwhelmed by unrestrained capitalistic dominance. This is the ingenious foundation through which Paddy Chayefsky’s legendary scripting, Sidney Lumet’s sharp direction, and a myriad of all-time great performances from its cast can take hold. It guides us through a thoroughly realized TV environment, and reflects the medium’s immediacy and reach in its incisive pace. Even though TV is no longer the newest form of mass communication, nor the fastest, the film is no less powerful or perceptive 43 years later — indeed, as many have pointed out over the decades, its relevancy is as fresh, constant, and frightening as ever.
Sure, there have been many movies about television, but I don’t know how any of them can beat the lasting and topicality and impact of Sidney Lumet’s “Network.” Something that was crafted as biting satire in 1976 looks jarringly prophetic today. Screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky won his third Oscar for this masterpiece and its perfection should be taught in every screenwriting class. Since “Network,” we have lived through an era of unprecedented growth in the news media market.
From shock value spiking ratings, closed door business dealings manipulating products, and all the sinful puppeteers and participants in between, there are very few aspects of the movie’s farcical elements that we wouldn’t openly believe are true and possible in the present landscape. That awesome real-life evolution has turned “Network” from a sizzling yarn of wry smirks to a damning cautionary tale that brings us to our knees, doubling its importance and value.
While “Late Night” does a solid job of capturing the spirit of a late night writers room in the present era of television, the best film about TV is “Network.” With a powerful performance from Peter Finch, the satirical “Network is relevant more so today than upon the theatrical release back in 1976.
I don’t know what it says about Paddy Chayefsky but his script could be written in this era. This speaks to just how smartly-written the script is. Think about it if you will. This is a script that speaks to the rise of reality programming. By allowing Howard Beale to go on these epic on-air rants, UBS could very well be FOX News today. Howard could literally be any of the FOX News anchors being allowed to go on on-air rants. If not FOX, then another network.
Peter Finch is top-notch in his role of Howard Beale. All the performances are great but Peter Finch manages to hit it out of the park with his performance. Honestly, I’ve read the list of actors considered for the roles but none could provide justice in the same way. I’ve seen way too many Cary Grant comedies to even imagine him in the role. When we talk about best actor, what I ask myself is this: could anyone else play the role in the same way? Could you remove this person, recast the role, and have a similar performance? If the answer is no, you’ve got the answer right there. For what it’s worth, I’ve yet to see Bryan Cranston in the Broadway play.
“The Truman Show”
Casey Cipriani, @CaseyCip Bustle, Freelance
Movies like “Network” and “Goodnight and Good Luck” capture the seriousness of TV’s place in history, but in the late ’90s, just as we were about to cross over into the new millennium, “The Truman Show” showed us the possibilities and potential horrors of reality television while at the same time making us laugh and being utterly charming. The moments when Truman begins to figure out that he’s the center of everyone’s attention are haunting, and some of Jim Carrey’s best dramatic work. And his charm, combined with the ridiculous nature of the premise, make for a comedy that’s super weird but also really prescient.
Reality TV until that point was about competitions or achievements. Rarely did we just watch people live. Did “The Truman Show” predict the Kardashians? Ugh. But “The Truman Show” also captured an aspect of communal TV watching that seems to have left us behind now that we’re in the era of streaming and binge watching. A couple of weeks ago we all sat down to watch “Game of Thrones'” final season, but how often anymore do we all sit, attached to our TVs at the same time, like Truman’s fans? Will we ever do so again? We know that nothing like “The Truman Show’s” show could ever happen in reality, as its basically kidnapping, but that doesn’t stop people from simply living their lives on TV, or making money buy eating crunchy foods on YouTube, or any of the other bizarre cinema-verité things people watch. “The Truman Show” predicted the future.
While “Network” brilliantly captured the notion of execs doing literally anything for ratings (and even used them as a sexual stimulant), “The Truman Show” was the first cultural moment to acknowledge that our collective obsession with the cult of personality needn’t rely on orchestrated shock moments, but rather that it could be borne out of endlessly repeated mundanity. That’s what “The Truman Show” understood and captured so perfectly; not just that Americans would continuously tune in for a news anchor who fell off the deep end, but that we would tune in for literally anything. I’m a strong believer that the Kardashians share a lot of responsibility for the rise of Trump, and “The Truman Show” both predicted and, perhaps, exacerbated, America’s compulsive need to keep up with them.
Prescient and prophetic in so many wonderfully terrifying ways, “The Truman Show” is still relevant more than 20 years after its release. In our hyper-mediated 24/7-news-cycle world where an actual reality TV persona somehow became the President of the USA, the satirical film holds up a magnifying glass to our culture’s willing bondage to television. Though god-like producer Christof (Ed Harris) declares, “We accept the reality with which we are presented,” Truman Burbank ultimately rejects this premise. Jim Carrey walking out the door of the studio where he’s lived a comfortable-yet-artificial life is a beautiful cinematic image of liberation.
It may not have much to do with the realistic details of TV production, but if you’re looking for a work that utilizes, satirizes and predicts our current relationship with media, conception of the divide between public and private life, and toxic codependence on the strangers we see on our screens every day, you can’t beat “The Truman Show.” To paraphrase Werner Herzog, sometimes it takes exaggeration to get at the deeper truth, and there’s nobody I’d rather tell the dreamy, eerie, and foreboding truth about television than Peter Weir.
It’s tempting to go nihilistic with something like the body horror of “Videodrome” or the Foucaultian surveillance of “The Truman Show.” But screw it, let’s have some fun — “Weird Al” Yankovic’s “UHF” is maybe the most joyful film ever made about television.
In an age of Peak TV, sometimes it’s hard to remember when UHF and public access stations reigned supreme in the ’80s — local stations stuffed to the gills with eccentric townspeople offering up dating advice, or interviewing people, or hosting erstwhile kid’s shows without the benefit of focus groups or nationwide marketing. Sure, it’s amped up to cartoonish levels, but “UHF” captures that freewheeling spirit of public access in a delightfully charming way. It’s a “Weird Al” vehicle first and foremost (there’s at least two or three scenes that are literally music videos for the film’s soundtrack), but this has the nifty side effect of making television seem fun, inviting and effortlessly joyful.
In the world of “UHF”, TV isn’t rotting your brain, or secretly watching you: it’s a haven for giggly weirdos to spin wheels of fish or blast kids with fire hoses (to their own delight). It’s true community TV, standing up easily to the corporatized, ultra-capitalist Channel 8 by sheer virtue of being small, personal — dare I say weird? It may not be the most sophisticated dive into TV culture, but “UHF” manages to capture the vagabond spirit of DIY television, and in so doing becomes a love letter to TV’s most admirable attributes.
“Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?”
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
The shock of television was felt throughout movies in the fifties, and I’d be remiss in not mentioning two works of profound insight—Douglas Sirk’s “All That Heaven Allows,” which reveals TV’s addictive nature, its function in compensating for solitude that it in turn deepens; and Yasujiro Ozu’s “Good Morning,” which reveals, in two children’s demand for a television set, that its power to fabricate a sense of belonging morphs into simulating a sense of existing. But the movie that stands out as a wild ride through its inflation of celebrity stunts into historic news-oidal events is Frank Tashlin’s 1957 comedy “Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?.” Ultimately, despite its mockery, the results are fairly cheerful; the winner would be “A Face in the Crowd,” if Lonesome Rhodes had ended up as President.