Sundance 2011: PAGE ONE: A YEAR INSIDE THE NEW YORK TIMES Review

     January 24, 2011

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Arguably the most important newspaper in the country, The New York Times is an American institution.  However, that status hasn’t protected it from the same difficulties faced by virtually all other major print publications.  Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times takes an even-handed look at the challenges the Times faces not only in terms of competition from online publications, but where it stands in relation to organizations like WikiLeaks and NBC.  The film also spends time with various personalities at the paper including witty and sarcastic editor Bruce Headlam and badass/media reporter David Carr.  The documentary offers a fascinating look at these issues and individuals, but never finds a way to tie them all together.

Rossi does a terrific job of intelligently exploring the issues faced by The New York Times in the modern day.  The rise of blogs and the decline in advertising has seriously damaged all print publications and the Times, the “Paper of Record” is trying to find out how to not only survive in this new environment, but thrive.  Trying to find the best angle from which to cover the Times from within the Timse, Rossi embeds himself with the paper’s media desk.  Its editor is Headlam, a strong central force who knows when people are bullshitting him and knows when he has a real story on his hands that’s worthy of the front page.

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The film’s first major chapter deals with how the Times explores to a WikiLeaks post of air strike footage in Afghanistan.  It’s highly entertaining to watch smart people pick apart the story and analyze whether or not WikiLeaks is an enterprise of journalism, activism, or both.  We also see how Headlam and reporter/former blogger Brian Stelter piece together the story and explain how WikiLeaks posted an edited and an uncut version of the video and that the context tells two different stories.  Rossi doesn’t make a judgment call on WikiLeaks, but instead shows the problems it poses, especially in comparison to how the Times handled Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers in 1971.  As executive editor Bill Keller dryly notes, “Daniel Ellsberg needed us.  WikiLeaks doesn’t.” It would have been easy for Rossi to appeal to the dog-whistle politics of the WikiLeaks controversy, but he shows restraint and plays it smart.  It’s this kind of approach that keeps Page One an intelligent movie even when it’s going over well-worn issues like the print vs. online debate.

But if you’re looking for drama and intensity (and for some reason don’t think watching journalism in action is exciting), the film has a firecracker in Carr.  A former drug addict turned one of the most respected media reporters in the country, he is whip-smart and has barbs that can cut any opponent into tiny pieces.  In one of the movie’s best scenes, Carr visits the office of VICE magazine because they may be partnering with CNN. While one of the reporters at VICE is feeling high and mighty about his visit to an impoverished African country, he shuts the guy down in such a spectacular fashion that I will not spoil the greatness.  And while Carr has no problem cutting through other people’s bullshit, he never comes off like a jerk.

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Rossi has so many wonderful pieces in his Page One puzzle, but he never finds a way to bring them all together.  The movie simply jumps from issue to issue. Some matters, like Carr’s investigation into the shady business practices of the Tribune company, have a chance to grow, but there rarely seems to be any rhyme or reason as to why Rossi is choosing to explore one facet of the Times before looking at another.

The lack of a strong, cohesive narrative or over-arching themes is frustrating, but the individual elements of the film are so strong that I hardly minded.  Page One has great subjects at its center, a world worth exploring, and Rossi puts it together in such a way that never feels like a cheap puff piece for the paper.  Page One is a documentary that does The New York Times proud by showing the same integrity and intelligence the Gray Lady is known for.

Rating: B+

For all of our coverage of the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, click here. Also, here are links to all of my Sundance reviews so far:

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