“Honest and Unmerciful”: How Hollywood Uncovers The Complexities of Life, Truth, and Journalism

Almost Famous, Columbia Pictures

Faced with moral, personal, and high stress work-related dilemmas, on-screen journalists have had much to decipher through. Films including The Year of Living Dangerously (1982), The Paper (1994), and Almost Famous (2000) portray vastly different journalistic environments, personalities, and career stages. Despite the diversity of chaos, all films successfully manage to cultivate a common underlying thread that ties each together by reflecting the ambitions of real life journalists in their primal commitment to pursuing the truth.

Peter Weir’s 1982 The Year of Living Dangerously depicts Guy Hamilton (Mel Gibson) as a journalist desperate to uncover the inner-workings of a communist uprising that’s on the edge of eruption while simultaneously grappling with the isolating and often times uncomfortable role of being a foreigner in Jakarta, Indonesia amidst political turmoil. As political tensions steadily rise throughout the film, Guy’s willingness to blur the lines between outright danger and his responsibility as a journalist continue to heighten. Although the violent and tense situations that Guy finds himself in may appear frightening to the audience, Guy maintains a sense of clarity and vision of the larger picture, even during the moments when we detect his own fear. Broken hearts, dead friends, and a country falling to pieces fail to phase Guy but ultimately propel him into the imperative role of bearing witness as a journalist. Amidst the fractured state of both the country and Guy’s sanity, The Year of Living Dangerously captures the extreme emotional and physical lengths that journalists endure on the path to the truth.

Starkly contrasted in terms of setting, Ron Howard’s The Paper thrusts viewers into the whirlwind of a 90’s New York City newsroom. In a fast-paced, gritty, and competitive space, The Paper’s Henry Hackett has no problem keeping up. He does however encounter a sour intersection of personal and work obstacles as he can’t seem to balance his time between his pregnant wife and a case regarding two Black teenage boys that have been falsely accused of a crime. The film highlights the complex dynamics of the ongoing clash between colleagues at the New York Sun rather than glossing over the profession’s challenges and risks. The Paper’s newsroom facilitates a boys’ club culture, features yelling and physical fights between staff, deals with financial limitations, and muddles the limits to the concurrent personal and professional roles we choose as human. Ultimately, the role in providing the city with the facts to disrupt the spread of false information that causes harm to everyday people as well as journalists overrides Henry’s turbulent journey in The Paper.

Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous arrives at a familiar conundrum displayed within the previous film mentioned through the lens of wide-eyed, painfully naive, but talented 15 year old William as an emerging music writer/journalist in the 1970’s. Introducing an interesting character parallel, the film offers a glimpse into two journalists at two very different stages in their life. William intensely admires and trusts Lester Bangs, a renowned music journalist that seems to have past both his personal and professional peak. As William turns to Lester for guidance, Lester attempts to teach William the language and dynamics of a rocky industry. However, Lester’s foresight into William’s fate as he becomes immersed in drama, bitterness, and heartbreak fail to actually shield William from these troubles. Both journalists at opposite ends of their careers finally overlap as they both come to grips with the uncool truth: the rough, vulnerable, and embarrassing moments as journalists are simply reflective of the career and their evident growth as people. Although the film is studded with glamour, rockstars, and groupies, Cameron Crowe’s willingness to base William’s character off his own experiences as a teenage journalist for Rolling Stone offer a unique and honest perspective into life as a journalist. Throughout the film, Lester echoes a refrain that brings William clarity when clouded with the weight of telling the unadulterated truth. Lester instructs William to be “honest and unmerciful” in the face of writing about rockstars, a simple goal that remains at the heart of good journalism.

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