Brow Beat

Someone’s Finally Making a Movie About Ida Tarbell

Ida Tarbell in 1904, the year she published The History of the Standard Oil Company.

James E. Purdy/Library of Congress

Amazon Studios has acquired Mark McDevitt’s Ida Tarbell script, Deadline reports. The script, about the legendary muckraking female journalist, was on the 2015 Black List, the “most-liked” list of unproduced screenplays published yearly by Franklin Leonard based on a poll of creative executives. McDevitt worked in the camera department on films like 25th Hour and Spider-Man 2 before founding Look Here Films, a video services company through which he’s produced everything from book trailers to documentaries for the New York Times. This is his first sale.


Ida Tarbell was a groundbreaking investigative journalist in the golden age of muckraking, best known for her multipart exposé of John D. Rockefeller and the Standard Oil Company which ran in McClure’s magazine from 1902 to 1904 before being collected in a book, The History of the Standard Oil Company. Tarbell’s work was credited with hastening Standard Oil’s breakup in 1911. Rather than a birth-to-grave biopic, McDevitt’s script focuses on the nuts and bolts of Tarbell reporting this gigantic story, while deftly evoking the colorful world of turn-of-the-century magazine publishing. (Publisher S.S. McClure’s affair with the terrible-but-suspiciously-frequently-published poet Florence Wilkinson makes a cameo.) Somewhat unbelievably, this seems to be the first feature film about Tarbell and her career.

To put it in creative executive–speak, the film is Spotlight meets There Will Be Blood, with a biopic hook, a female lead, deep resonances with our current gilded age, and the kind of role for an older actress that isn’t supposed to exist anymore. In other words, done right, it could be the Alien xenomorph of awards-season movies, so it’s kind of surprising it wasn’t bought a long time ago. Maybe no one told the major studios about Appeal to Reason, Collier’s, and the other players in the Muckracker Cinematic Universe.