Film review: Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times (MFF 2011)

Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times
Participant Media, History Films

STARRING David Carr, Bruce Headlam, Richard Perez-Pena, Tim Arango, Bill Keller, Brian Stelter
WRITTEN BY Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi
PRODUCED BY John Braun, David Hand, Kate Novack, Alan Oxman, Adam Schlesinger
DIRECTED BY Andrew Rossi

SHOT BY Andrew Rossi
EDITED BY Chad Beck, Christopher Branca, Sarah Devorkin
MUSIC BY Paul Brill
DISTRIBUTED BY Magnolia Pictures, Participant Media

Screened at the 2011 Milwaukee Film Festival

In case you hadn’t heard it exhaustively reported on Huffington Post, print media has been facing a crisis in America: publications have been dying at an alarming rate in the past five years and the victims are growing in stature. The reasons are complex, involving falling ad revenues and extensively decreasing reader bases because of, yes, you know, the internet. A high-minded documentary was inevitable. So we visit the New York Times, a popular, antediluvian info-spreading organization, to follow around half a dozen employees in various capacities to understand how this digital revolution has affected their lives, and possibly how much its threatening their futures. Not terminally, we learn.

NYTimes Media Columnist David Carr is our aged and leathered voice of reason – the expert inside who educates himself on the war without. When I first saw the trailer for Page One, I thought it would be a somewhat sob story about Carr, the withered, dying herald of print media in the new digital world. Happily, my prejudice was thwarted. But in Rossi’s dense and meandery docu, Carr comes off as shrewd, seasoned and raspingly erudite, and his opponents sound disrespectful, impetuous, sometimes even childish (though I will not discount Rossi’s seemingly healthy bias in Carr’s direction). Carr is supposed to be charming, however, because as it is often iterated, he has survived a number of difficulties in his life. Surely he can also survive this. Never mind that those other difficulties were entirely of his own making… he’s still so street smart and knows how to wield his power during demanding phone calls.

I can’t even write about this without sounding like the king of regurgitation, but I must: Wikileaks. Surely you heard about Wikileaks. Classifieds documents, the internet, Julian Assange. Now what sort of position does he put the NYTimes in, and all print media, when he is able to post such information by himself? And the jobs of our beloved Times staff? Perhaps the most endearing quality of the film is the way the employees of The Times come off like they are characters created by Aaron Sorkin – totally dedicated, driven by their values, and maybe most importantly, sporting wonderful senses of humor (or was it just edited that way?). I was mildly charmed. Near the end we watch them do legal and epistolary battle with the George W. Bush of print conglomerates, Sam Zell, former CEO of the Chicago Tribune, an autocrat of embarrassing proportion, and practically a Bizarro Carr. A sort of slurring, cursing, inebriated Southern stereotype of power’s ability to corrupt. The Times’ staff goes on to waste his ass in a battle of dignities. Duh.

During the viewing I was enjoying the film. In hindsight I must say it has depreciated – it may have been fluffy and charming, but I’ll side with the Times review itself by opining that this documentary had almost no narrative throughline – in fact, I feel like 90% of the documentaries being marketed are similarly afflicted. What I wanted most, however, was merely that look inside, and I got it. I’m so predictable. I’d also just like to say that now, when I see pro digital graphic design in a documentary, I almost immediately lose interest in the docu completely. There’s something so NPR about it – something unoffensive, smug… perhaps too contented with the status quo. Think I’m reading too far into this?

Technology has increased the efficiency of the newspaper biz by eliminating much of the need for the print distributor – and I suppose a new epoch of business is on the horizon, in which every citizen is an enterprise, locations logged, liked, followed… and a Corporate Citizen like the NYTimes may start to look like quite the cumbersome old leviathan. This may sound like quite a stretch, but I worked in a number of video stores, some almost respectable, and witnessed their decline due to the internet. But it’s just like paper currency… if it’s going away, it won’t be for some time. We’ll need less of it, certainly, and its usages will become crystalized – which is of course good. So we can just call this docu “Growing Pains” – hell, let’s apply that to our entire generation. The New York Times, of all pubs, will clearly endure into the foreseeable future – I wonder if this documentary would’ve been more effective if it would’ve focused on some dying underdog? All those record-playing hippie/hipsters would just love that. Oh yeah.

written by David Ashley