Page One (Magnolia Pictures), Andrew Rossi’s informative, timely, but never quite revelatory documentary about the financial struggles at the New York Times, has the almost-greatness of an opportunity missed. Rossi was given unprecedented access to the light-flooded Renzo Piano tower where the nation’s flagship newspaper somehow, miraculously, gets put together from scratch day after day. And the central questions his movie poses—what is the role of a daily paper in a functioning democracy? in five, 10, 20 years, will the New York Times exist at all?—are urgent and vital ones. Yet long stretches of Page One feel overfamiliar and stale. The interviews with new-media “experts” on the viability of print journalism in the digital age, or footage from a Times reporter’s speech to a conference panel, will make viewers who work in a media-related field think they should be getting paid overtime to watch.
Page One, the bulk of which was filmed in 2008 at the height of the stock-market crash, focuses its attention on the Times media desk, where analyses of the WikiLeaks scandal or the corporate culture at the failing Tribune company replace daily-beat stories about crime, politics, or war. It’s understandable why Rossi would make this choice. By staying with the media section, he can be sure to document daily news stories that relate to his film’s theme: the disorienting shifts in the way people produce, consume, and distribute information. But the concerns of the media desk are so insidery, so focused on how we talk about what’s happening rather than what just happened, that Page One often seems to undermine its own argument about the vital importance of traditional shoe-leather reporting.
Perhaps Rossi chose the media desk because of the superstar presence of the wonderfully entertaining media reporter David Carr. Carr, a former cocaine addict whose long, strange trip from rock bottom to a post at the Times was chronicled in his memoir The Night of the Gun, functions as the movie’s leading man. Like James Carville in the 1993 campaign documentary The War Room, he’s the colorful, foulmouthed truth-teller amid his more strait-laced colleagues. But unlike Carville, Carr has an air of wise, almost shamanistic detachment that makes him seem above the daily fray. As he tells a younger colleague in one scene, after having been a crackhead single parent on welfare, the prospect of maybe one day getting laid off from the Times with a severance package hardly sounds like a knell of doom.
The young media reporter Brian Stelter—a new-media wunderkind who came to the Times straight from his own TV-news blog—plays the stolid Sancho Panza to Carr’s Don Quixote. Stelter is a bright, well-spoken guy, but one scene of him making phone calls at his desk under the gaze of a Gumby action figure would have sufficed. Watching Carr report a story, on the other hand, is like watching James Levine conduct an opera. With a can of Coke Zero at one elbow and a Plantronics headset on his head, he grills sources with dogged energy and a fierce skepticism that’s a joy to watch. “I’m not in the business of corporate portraiture,” he growls at a Vice magazine editor who spins him a glowing report on the company’s success. When a prominent leftwing blogger disses the Times for its role in the Judith Miller affair, Carr, ever loyal to his beloved Gray Lady, systematically tears him a new Daily Kos.
Bruce Headlam, the head of the media desk, who represents his staff at the daily meeting to decide on Page One stories, is also an amusing figure, a dryly funny mensch who at times recalls Jason Bateman’s embattled paterfamilias in Arrested Development. These Page One meetings make for some of the movie’s most fascinating scenes, as we watch the paper’s now-departing executive editor, Bill Keller, make split-second decisions about which of the stories in progress will make it above the fold the next day. But despite the movie’s title, the time it spends at that high-stakes negotiating table is far too short.
Page One isn’t a bad documentary by any means; at 88 minutes, it’s entertaining and brisk. For anyone invested in the future of journalism—which, as this movie makes abundantly clear, includes anyone who reads the newspaper, either in print or online—it’s necessary viewing. But the film spends too much time wringing its hands over the all-too-evident fact that journalism is in crisis, when it could be documenting that crisis from the inside.