I won’t deny that aspects of Andrew Rossi’s Page One: Inside the New York Times feel more than a little like a combination of the Times sending a very self-congratulatory love letter to itself and an even more self-serving advert to get the viewer to pony-up for that paywall they’ve stuck on their online content. Having said that, I also found the film to be compelling viewing—not only for the issues it raises about the state of journalism, but because of the presence of the paper’s media reporter David Carr. Carr is like a modern variation on the old school Ben Hecht-style reporter—you know the kind that Hecht and Charles MacArthur immortalized back in 1928 with The Front Page. (And if you don’t know, seek out the play—or at least the 1940 film version His Girl Friday.)
Carr is the glue that holds the film together. Without him—and the central drama of him tackling the notorious regime change at the Chicago Tribune—Page One would have no shape at all. Even with him, the film kind of flops around. It seems to otherwise have no clear idea what it wants to say beyond putting forth the case that a world without the The New York Times is unthinkable. While I’m sufficiently conventional in my thinking to largely agree with that sentiment—as long as the Village Voice stays afloat, too—I can’t say that the movie makes it entirely clear why the Times is so important in this age of blogging and Twitter and so-called “citizen journalism.” (Then again, the case could be made that the unchecked blogger, the undigested Twitter postings and the all too often crackpot nature of “citizen journalism” are themselves reason enough.)
Thankfully, the film has Carr to keep it going. Even before settling into his central drama, his presence shapes the film—as in the scene where he subdues a cocky blogger site by cutting everything out of a printed version of their main page that they obtained from a newspaper or recognized media source, leaving them with a page that is 90 percent holes. He also works as the face of the journalist adapting to the use—however grudgingly—of the new tools on the interconnected online world. As a former crack addict who pulled himself together and essentially re-created himself, he understands the necessity of adaptation.
There’s no denying that the film’s centerpiece—its most entertaining, satisfying and convincing section—is the business involving him tackling the nightmare at the Tribune when new owner Sam Zell, who knew and cared nothing about journalism, turned the business over to radio executives who knew and cared even less. Seeing Carr and the Times bring them down is definitely gratifying. But beyond this—and despite what it omits and what it (perhaps foolishly) assumes you already know—I think the film is important simply for the issues it raises. That it can’t answer them is a separate issue. If it at least gets the viewer to think about them, it’s accomplished much. Rated R for strong language.