Sundance Review: 'Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times'
David Carr stars in a poorly focused Gray Lady documentary
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PARK CITY - Chances are that if you're the type of person willing to dedicate themselves to spending an entire year chronicling the happenings in the newsroom of the New York Times, you aren't going to turn that footage into a dire "Print is dead, long live the New Media Order" documentary.
Indeed, Andrew Rossi comes to praise The Gray Lady, not to bury her, in his new documentary "Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times." A loving 88 minute cuddle with The Paper of Record and surely the sort of puff piece The New York Times would hesitate to run itself, "Page One" makes the argument that even in a diversified world of media options, the one that gets tossed against your front door every morning and that leaves your fingers smudged with ink is still the best option available.
Extra-super-hyper-meta? Heavens yes. You've got a documentary about investigating the New York Times writers who investigate the media.
Rushed? Probably. Rossi's year embedded at the newspaper only just ended and focus and flow are not strong suits in "Page One."
Engaging, entertaining and interesting? Yes. Rossi caught the New York Times in an important year and followed some interesting characters as they investigated some interesting stories. And even if I may have joked about the film's not-especially-provocative thesis, Rossi's probably correct: We are better off living in a world that includes The New York Times than one without it.
Full review of "Page One," which is playing in Sundance's U.S. Documentary competition. after the break...
More than 40 years after Gay Talese chronicled The New York Times' inner workings in "The Kingdom and the Power," Rossi looks at a paper in a very different place. Circulation is down. Advertising revenue is down. And all around the country, other major newspapers are shuttering their doors or filing for bankruptcy. The media coverage of the death of Old Media has been so aggressive that it's little wonder Rossi chose to turn his attentions to the relatively newly created Media Desk.
Through the Media Desk, Rossi gives an overview of the way The New York Times works. The emphasis is pretty clearly on editing and oversight as a contrast to the Wild West of the Blogosphere. Rossi wants to show the way *real* reporters track down stories, the struggle to get quotes on record, the struggle to tweak and trim stories into shape, the competitive process that gets good stories on Page One and leaves other stories entirely un-covered.
According to my press notes, Rossi originally considered doing a film just on David Carr, so instead he made a film about an entire department, only to find himself simply making a more diluted film about David Carr. Under the circumstances, he'd probably have been better off making a film about David Carr. If David Carr weren't real, somebody like Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet would have created him. The bald, raspy-voiced Carr has a long-held reputation of one of the media's great truth-tellers, not in the least for his willingness to tell the truth about his own drug addiction and struggles as a single-dad on welfare. Carr takes no guff, whether interviewing sources, pummeling corporate entities for comment or taking down New Media snobs at public forums. Carr's no-filter speaking style and dogged reporting make him such a compelling subject that "Page One" loses steam whenever he's off-screen. You don't have to like David Carr -- I had to stop following the guy on Twitter -- but you can't deny that he's the heart of the film and that the documentary's best scenes involve the build-up to Carr's lethal coverage of the culture behind the Tribune bankruptcy.
The film's other main subject is former blogging wunderkind Brian Stelter, who begins the film with an ahead-of-the-curve piece of reporting about Julian Assange and a little site called Wikileaks. The Assange/Wikileaks story lets Rossi delve into the difference between journalists (read: reporters at newspapers) and advocates (read: pesky people with blogs and questionable ethics) in the 21st Century, a difference that later becomes blurry when The New York Times and two other international newspapers effectively partner with Assange on a major document drop. The question of "How do we stay above the rabble?" is one that plagues everybody in the newsroom.
Rossi includes interviews with some representatives of the rabble, though there's little doubt as to the authorial feeling with Gawker magnate Nick Denton points out his Big Board and displays the kind of "news" and "reporting" that move the needle in the Internet Age.
In addition to the reporters, Rossi also has access to some of the people who are entrusted with making sure that the news that's fit to print is actually fit to print. Executive Editor Bill Keller says nothing of substance, but he does it with gravitas. Media Desk Editor Bruce Headlam comes across as the sort of smart, snarky man you'd want in your editorial corner. And Susan Chira is there, because if she weren't, everybody in the movie would look the same.
[This is just an observation and you can read into it whatever you want and it certainly needn't necessarily be seen as a criticism of The New York Times or a criticism of Rossi's selection of on-camera subjects, though it could be seen as a criticism of either if you choose to: The vast majority of the subjects in "Page One" and the vast majority of the people filling the frame are white males. Like probably 90-to-95 percent of the camera time in "Page One" is given to white males. Is this a failing of mainstream media journalism? Perhaps. Is it a specific failing of the Gray Lady? Perhaps. Again, the judgment is whatever you choose to make of it. But it felt notable to me that every hero in the movie is a white male, but the two journalists who the doc scapegoats with destroying the paper's reputation, the two embarrassments who everybody else has to clean up after now, just happen to be a woman (Judith Miller) and an Africa-American guy (Jayson Blair). Filmmaking is always about making choices and these were the choices Rossi made or was forced into.]
Rossi's lack of focus is damaging to "Page One." The movie already makes a lie of its very title by looking only at the one little corner of the Times, but despite it being a relatively short film, Rossi is constantly distracted. Yes, Tribune owner Sam Zell is an intriguingly weird figure and he ties into the Carr story, but Zell is probably on screen nearly as much as Bill Keller is. A long digression tries making the case that the iPod is going to be the savior of newspapers, but that segment feels like a buzz-worthy idea the director is tossing out there rather than supporting the contention with facts. And a closing segment on the paper's website going behind a partial paywall is good for debate, but has no connection to the whole "year in the life" concept, since it doesn't go into effect until this year. Then again, the "year in the life" gambit is half-hearted anyway, since Rossi barely mentions the time frame and and certainly doesn't stick to a chronology. [The last note before the closing credits mentions Stelter's impressive weight loss over the last 12 months. Stelter's Twitter followers already knew about that weight loss and you can pinpoint where in the shuffled year we are based on Stelter's scene-to-scene yo-yoing weight.]
I wonder how little time Rossi and his three editors had to construct "Page One" in order to meet their Sundance deadlines and I wond'er if this is an unacknowledged work-in-progress. I hope that's the case. "Page One" is a decent documentary with a very worthy message, but I feel like it ought to be much better.
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: