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There’s not much subtlety in Ron Howard’s vibrant day-in-the-life dramedy “The Paper,” a movie that literally works up to dueling (both physically and morally) newspaper editors, played by Michael Keaton and Glenn Close, who tussle on the floor of their New York City paper’s printing plant as the press hums above them. But if certain narrative elements of the movie felt blunt back when it was made in 1994, they now impart important messages with the kind of force required to cut through today’s noise, especially as they apply to the necessity of a free press.
That’s not to say that Howard’s film — sandwiched between better-remembered outings “Far and Away” and “Apollo 13,” and often overlooked when considering his prodigious mid-’90s output — is a self-righteous slog, as the star-packed outing offers its headier elements inside a very entertaining package. Unlike other recent newspaper-centric films, from the sublime “Spotlight” to the vaguely ridiculous “The Post,” the “big story” that drives the film and its deeper questions about journalistic integrity is only one part of the rip-roaring action. Still, the story simmers in the background, eventually pulling together Howard’s many characters and storylines with a bullet.
Starring a post-Batman Michael Keaton (the film was one of two more “adult” features the former Caped Crusader took on that year, along with Ron Underwood’s rom-com “Speechless”), “The Paper” follows New York Sun editor Henry Hackett during one particularly fraught day in his life. But Howard’s film, written by brothers David and Stephen Koepp, doesn’t open with Harry, who is juggling the demands of his job at the vaguely tabloid-y Sun with the needs of his very pregnant wife, former reporter Martha (Marisa Tomei), but the splashy story that will consume New York City media for at least 24 hours.
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Instead, the film opens with a pair of Brooklyn teens (Vincent D’Arbouze and Michael Michael) strolling through Williamsburg, chatting about a party they’re attending later that night. As the pair hash out what they’re going to wear and who they hope to see, they stumble on a fresh crime scene: a car holding two very dead white businessmen. The crime is pinned on the teens, and while Harry and his cohorts initially bristle that the Sun lost out on the story for their morning edition (instead, they went with another screed against the parking commissioner, a recent obsession of the rag), they come to realize that the first word on this complicated tale is not the best take. It’s not even the truth.
While Howard’s film zips through the day’s many dramas, mostly told through Harry’s cock-eyed lens (Keaton is at his laconic best here, even when Harry is sweating through his shirt and chugging Coke at an alarming rate), the story of the Brooklyn teens is never lost in the shuffle. An intrepid reporter (Roma Maffia) heads straight to the tight-lipped police to get the real story, while her grizzled cohort (Jack McGee) huffs through his usual contacts in hopes of getting something fresh.
Even in the midst of ceaseless personal problems (did we mention that Harry is also considering a jump to the film’s stand-in for The New York Times?), Harry hammers away at a story that just doesn’t feel right. As entertaining and fun as “The Paper” is — thanks to enough star power and fast-paced storytelling to appeal to many sensibilities — it also asks big questions about the need for the press to always tell the truth, even if it’s not easy or flashy or readily available when deadlines are due.
It all leads to a literal knock-down, drag-out fight between Henry, bent on not just delivering the truth to their readers but recognizing the inherent value of it (both to their readers and the innocent kids it depicts), and Close’s Alicia, the paper’s ambitious managing editor who believes that a story only needs to be as honest as it was the minute they turned the presses on. “We’ll run yours tomorrow!,” she yells at Harry, all while they beat the crap out of each other and the presses fire off a story that’s not just false, but dangerous.
But tomorrow isn’t just too late for the Sun; it’s too late for the truth. “The Paper” understood that back in 1994, imagining it as the kind of debate so visceral that it would push coworkers to blows, physically fighting their way to an answer that should be obvious. The truth matters, and so do the people who seek it out.
“The Paper” is streaming on Amazon Prime Video.