The Paper February 16, 2021
he New York Sun’s front-page headlines typically end in exclamation points. (The main one planned for tomorrow’s edition: “GOTCHA!”) This movie version of the New York Post isn’t exactly high-end or interested in preeminent quality. More lurid, attention-grabbing stories take precedence when “you almost fold every three months,” one of its editors notes a few scenes before assuring a colleague that it doesn't
matter if a story’s presentation is a tad misleading since most people “take us with a grain of salt.” But the people who work there, or at least the people who have worked there for longer than a few years, treat the Sun as if it were the noblest, most important cause in the world. (Some of this enthusiasm is subconsciously mandated, though: one simply cannot work for a daily publication and sleepwalk through their duties.)
Henry Hackett (Michael Keaton), the protagonist of Ron Howard’s lively The Paper (1994), has been at the Sun for a while now; he even met his now eight-and-a-half-months-pregnant wife, Martha (Marisa Tomei), in its offices. He just might love it more than anyone he works with — at least that’s what the film subliminally suggests. This longtime metro editor is such a workaholic that his shifts way too often stretch beyond 12 hours. There may not be an hour in his life that passes by where something related to the Sun is not top of mind.
Martha, a journalist who too loves her job, can relate to Henry to a point. (Most writers, myself included, will no doubt see plenty of themselves in his one-track mindedness.) But with more distance between her personal and professional lives than ever (she's been on maternity leave for a few months), Martha is especially conscious these days of how all-engrossing her husband’s workaholism is. When she poses a hypothetical to him — what if somebody broke into our apartment and that someone held a gun to my head and said either she gets it or the Sun gets it, who would you pick? — he can’t give her a straight answer. “You really should have told me if I had a kid, I’d be on my own,” Martha says. Henry is considering moving over to the more-esteemed Sentinel — The Paper’s version of the New York Times. But he makes it indirectly clear during his interview with its editor-in-chief that he just can’t unmoor himself from his current gig. His stubbornness in this case is subconscious, and he doesn’t even realize it. (Henry sabotages himself when he decides to look at his potential boss' story list when his back is turned in case there lies an unmissable scoop somewhere on the sheet.)
The Paper covers a 24-hour period. Its arc doesn’t involve, as it might in a sunnier movie, Henry turning over a new leaf and finding a healthier work-life balance. His marital problems are just one of several issues encompassing the film’s maze of subplots; this is among the very few journalism movies I can think of that’s far more interested in capturing the taxing day-to-day grind than it is the long-term tolls of an expansive, thorny investigation at a major outlet (1976’s All the President’s Men, 2015’s Spotlight, or 2017’s The Post). We spend alone time with the Sun's wearied editor-in-chief, Bernie White (Robert Duvall), who discovers in the course of the movie that he has prostate cancer and who, as a result, tries to reconnect with his estranged daughter. We get to know materialistic managing editor Alicia Clark (a viperous Glenn Close), who is constantly at odds with Henry (she prioritizes financial viability over quality and ethics) and who desperately wants to be part of the New York media glitterati. There’s also McDougal (Randy Quaid), a listless columnist who spends most of his workday sleeping on Henry’s office couch. All the performances in The Paper are enjoyably spirited; these actors get right their characters’ delicate balance of gusto for and spiritual depletion from their jobs.
This movie’s plotting evokes the structure of a newspaper — made up of a wide conglomeration of stories that are not equally engaging. But it has some good and amusing observations about office life, particularly when it comes to recreating the exhausting stress bubble that envelops an overworked and underpaid newsroom. (So underpaid that its main staff photographer is a 14-year-old student, though I hope, and would probably be not wrong to assume, that Clark was being facetious when she revealed that fact.) And it mostly successfully straddles the razor’s edge between near-deranged slapstick comedy and real-life-evoking perceptiveness; it has some of the mania of, say, His Girl Friday (1940), but it doesn’t get too carried away. (Co-screenwriter Stephen Koepp was once the executive editor at Time magazine.) The Paper is so often in a state of frenzy that the camera frequently zooms around the office with the speed of a swatted-at dragonfly.
The Paper grows less attuned to realism the longer it goes on. What ends up being a literally life-changing (for its subjects) front-page story is turned around in just a few hours when in reality it would have likely required more time-consuming investigative efforts given the major claims it’s making, for instance. (But I could be being pessimistic.) All the chaos comes to a boil just as Martha goes into a predictably not-uncomplicated labor. (Sometimes the film’s fast-motion comedy, akin to the melodramatic thrusts of its subplots, can also go too far, like when a climactic argument over the front page turns physical and Howard simply can’t sell it as darkly goofy.) A little too neatly tying up the various subplots, The Paper’s ending is like reading the conclusions of a week’s worth of front-page stories all at once. It’s too much. But I finished the movie feeling the same way I often do after digesting a day’s paper: while not everything in it was essential, I’m still pretty happy to have had it at my disposal. B+