Film Review: Page One: Inside the New York Times

August 2, 2011

originally published in the Raleigh News & Observer

It’s no secret that the newspaper business is in trouble. Dozens of papers across the U.S. have folded in the face of rising distribution costs, declining ad revenue and competition from digital sources.

“Page One: Inside the New York Times” is a fascinating documentary that roots into the challenges the industry faces, by focusing on America’s flagship newspaper, The New York Times.

You don’t have to be a policy wonk or media nerd to enjoy “Page One” – but it helps. From the first frame, director Andrew Rossi dives into the deep end of the pool, trusting that his audience is sophisticated enough to keep up.

Rossi eschews voiceover, and we’re often dropped into the middle of newsroom meetings where journalists are debating – passionately and sometimes profanely – some fine point of public policy or journalistic ethics.

It’s quite thrilling, if you’re at all into this kind of thing. And it’s always nice when a film assumes its viewers are just as smart as its subjects.

Documentary filmmakers are always looking for a central character who can anchor a film, and “Page One” finds its charismatic lead in media columnist David Carr. Irascible and funny, with a raspy voice and buzzard-like posture, Carr steals every scene he’s in. Clearly a born wordsmith, he seems to speak in fully formed paragraphs, with language that’s impossibly precise and sometimes even poetic.

Heaven help you if you get on his bad side, or dare to criticize his newspaper. The film’s funniest scenes are those in which Carr issues verbal smackdowns to critics, competitors and anyone else in range. In one terrific sequence, Carr interrupts the editor of Vice magazine, who questions the Times’ reporting in Africa.

“Just because you put on a (expletive) safari hat and went in there for three weeks doesn’t give you the right to insult what we do,” Carr scolds. The Vice editor, duly terrified, starts backpedaling instantly. It’s fun to watch.

“Page One” covers a lot of territory. Director Rossi and his team filmed for a full year inside the paper’s New York offices, from 2009 through 2010. During that period, the Times laid off more than 100 of its newsroom staff, weathered criticism over its partnership with Wikileaks and moved its website to a paid subscription model.

The film regularly pauses to look back, as well. Archival film reels from the 1950s are fun to watch, as hardboiled reporters chain-smoke and argue over giant conference tables. Interviews with old-school guys like Gay Talese and Carl Bernstein are reminders of the paper’s rich heritage.

Probably the film’s most disturbing passages are those in which the paper’s writers and editors speculate on the uncertain future of print journalism. In one scene, reporters are shown covering the release of Apple’s iPad and later reading their stories displayed on the device.

Rossi inserts a clip of Rupert Murdoch heralding the iPad as the savior of the newspaper business. Carr and his boss, media editor Bruce Headlam, are much more skeptical and very hesitant indeed about relying on another company for their distribution.

As a documentary film, however, “Page One” ultimately lacks focus. With its attention split among various storylines, the movie feels scattered. It’s a little stuffy, too. If it weren’t for Carr’s surly jokes, the film would have no laughs at all.

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