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Special Correspondents: Ricky Gervais' new feature film follows the tradition of lying, cheating journalists

What journalists do to get a story

Matilda Battersby
Thursday 21 April 2016 10:45 BST
Special Correspondents
Special Correspondents (Netflix)

Frank Bonneville, the arrogant, comically despicable reporter from Ricky Gervais’ new feature film Special Correspondents follows in a fine tradition of lying, cheating journalists on film which extends right back to Boris Karloff’s character in 1931 film Five Star Final.

Like Karloff’s T. Vernon Isopod, a tabloid journalist who pretends he's a clergyman to get a story, Bonneville (played with wicked hubris by Eric Bana) will happily bend the rules, impersonate policemen and generally strut his way to the heart of a story no matter who gets in his way.

Journalists on screen are normally scoundrels or worthy, truth-hungry heroes. But Bonneville’s character is neither, in actuality, and the film, which Gervais both wrote, directed and starred in, is notable for taking the proverbial out of both stereotypes while following, rather less adroitly, in the satirical footsteps of Evelyn Waugh’s 1938 novel Scoop.

Like William “the wrong” Boot, Waugh’s society journalist hero who is accidentally sent to report from the frontline of war in the fictional Ishmaelia, Bonneville finds himself filing made up reports about a civil war in Ecuador, eventually staging his own kidnap along with his poor hapless radio technician Ian Finch (Gervais) — only for their fictitious broadcasts to be repeated around the globe, sparking a manhunt for a made up rebel leader and, eventually, for the utter rubbish they’ve come out with to somehow, bafflingly, become the truth.

The film is a comedy and it is the second film to this year to poke fun at the desperately dangerous job of being a war correspondent. The first was Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, released last month, which stars Tina Fey as Kim Baker, an American TV journalist who swaps her conventional life and job to report on the frontline of “Iraq 2”.

Tango Foxtrot is full of hackneyed journalistic tropes. Kabul, is full of hard-drinking adrenaline junkie newshounds in a “Kabubble” who party in bullet-riddled buildings before laughing in the face of snipers in pursuit of stories. The film is (very loosely) based on Baker’s blackly comic memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan, but it has been mocked online as like Zero Dark 30 Rock for its jarringly contradictory failure to do either a complete MASH or a Hurt Locker - leaving one feeling a little uncomfortable as Fey jumps into the fray with a smile and her camera running, ending up finding “herself” rather than anything more satisfying.

But, whether you enjoy either film or not, what both manage to do is present an image of journalism that is, if not entirely dead, certainly on the In Danger of Extinction list. Strikingly, both our main characters don’t work for the New York Times or a big shot news channel: they work in local radio or TV and their roles are a struggle. The fact that their bosses just agreed to post them expensively to work on extensive stories may not ring true when even successful new media news websites like Mashable are laying off journalists this week, but the portrait being painted is quite clearly an affectionate look back at the very recent halcyon days of foreign reportage.

Another recent hack film, Spotlight, based on a true story about a team at the Boston Globe who uncover allegations that the Catholic church knew about and covered up for paedophile priests, is full of worthy and truth-hungry hacks, but it is so well executed and the story so strong and important that we are instantly on the side of our heroic newspaper men and women. Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy remarked: “This story is an example of really strong local investigative journalism that had at first a national impact then an international impact. That’s an important thing to remember especially as investigative journalism has taken a huge hit.”

He continues: “Many dailies have closed, staffs cut 40 or 50 per cent. We still have very strong national papers in the US but [Spotlight] is on a local level, and I think that’s important to remember. This story is based on a local paper, local journalists cracking this story. They’re probably the only ones who could have.”

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The film follows a cinematic tradition which started around the 1970s of portraying real journalists as heroic figures - something which arguably changed many people’s views of the profession. Before Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman made Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Hollywood-level smooth in All The President’s Men (1976) journos on the silver screen were typically shrewd, sarcastic and morally dubious figures (think The Front Page or Meet John Doe).

The hero/villain paradox means filmmakers have plenty of opportunity to use these stereotypes to tell good stories. Especially when the basis of a film is the complete failure of anyone to spot the difference between a real journalist and a compulsive liar, such as in 2003’s Shattered Glass, based on the true story of American journalist Stephen Glass (Hayden Christiansen) who managed to pass off articles he’d made up entirely as scoops while working at New Republic magazine.

But with news being transformed by instant publishing and the internet, with newspapers like The Independent closing its print edition, the Guardian cutting editorial staff, the BBC under threat from cuts, is the caricature of journalism being presented in Hollywood soon to become as much of a relic of a bygone era as the portrait of the industry in 1941 film Citizen Kane - a film which tops “greatest lists” time and again for its genius move by Orson Welles which puts the viewer in the place of an investigate journalist, Joseph Cotten, trying to unearth the truth about newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane and the mysterious “Rosebud” of which he speaks on his death bed.

John Slattery, one of the stars of Spotlight, recently commented: “The Boston Globe is now half the size it was in 2001 [when the film is set]. Investigative journalism is not what it was. The ongoing transformation of news into news as entertainment is quite disturbing.” Remarks that echo New Republic editor Chuck Lane (Peter Sarsgaard) in Shattered Glass, who says: “He handed us fiction after fiction and we printed it all as fact…just because we found him ‘entertaining.”

Special Correspondents hits Netflix on 29 April

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