Review: Page One: Inside The New York Times
4.5 stars (out of 5)
By R. Kurt Osenlund
Thank god for “Page One: Inside The New York Times,” a documentary that's far from flawless but pretty close to vital. It's our most comprehensive movie yet about the mercilessly volatile state of modern media – a metamorphic conundrum of communication for which there are no real answers, just varying plans of attack. That voracious appetite to fight in a forward motion, ever-mindful of the rationale-crippling spectre of a weak economy, is what “Page One” responds to. Its thesis is simple: In a climate where every media maker worth his salt is clamoring, often blindly, to stay ahead of the outlandishly accelerated digital boom, there needs to exist a journalistic institution that makes merit of content its top priority, not clicks, advertisers or 140-character witticisms. Such a conceptual entity is much bigger than The New York Times but, in America, there's no better prism through which to view the battlefield. The best scene in “Page One” is during one of many professional forums, wherein Times media reporter David Carr, the film's gravelly-voiced sage of a hero, silences Newser.com founder Michael Wolff by holding up a hole-filled printout of the site's catalog of articles – an arresting illustration of what Newser would look like had it not gleaned any content from bona fide producers like the Times. It's a warning for a world where the business of journalism is dashing out its principles.
The stubborn soul of the movie, Carr does often sound like someone's crotchety grandfather (all the more reason to juxtapose him with blogging-prodigy-turned-Times- employee Brian Stelter, who Carr wryly insists is “a robot” made by the company to “destroy” him). But in his adamant old-schoolness lies the lucid reasoning of which the stereotypical, print-denouncing webhead seems detrimentally ignorant. A strikingly capable journalist who can apparently beat the curve even when he avoids it (he steered clear of Twitter for as long as he could, only to later master its philosophies), Carr, who wrote about the Oscars before manning the media desk, comes off as a prophet, his unwavering bias toward the Times eclipsed by the implied ability to calmly see past the industry's flurry of what's-next paranoia (“I know what it's like to come out the other side when the odds are stacked against you,” he says, referencing the crack addiction that left him leaner in frame but broader in perspective).
This is not to suggest that paranoia isn't justifiable, and “Page One” does surely suffer by ill-advisedly arcing to a last-act optimism that doesn't necessarily exist. But what Carr brings is what this whole big conversation tends to lack: balance. It would certainly appear that there aren't nearly enough people like him in the fray. People who can actually yank the reins and look around. People who can handily utilize new tools but recognize the necessity of editorial organization. People who can listen, but also scoff, when Steve Jobs and Rupert Murdoch hastily hail the iPad as the undeniable future of the biz. “Now there's a great reading experience,” Carr says, thumbing at his iVersion of the Times through an 8-by-10-inch viewfinder. “You know what it reminds me of? A newspaper.”
Perhaps unintentionally, “Page One” itself is reminiscent of a newspaper, its focus darting to and from the biggest media stories of late: Twitter. WikiLeaks. The iPad. The recession. And, indeed, the very guts of the industry. Critics – including one from the Times – have given director Andrew Rossi a lashing for a supposed lack of clear direction; however, his entire structure proves reflective of the freeing, yet contained, experience that endless clicks can't seem to replicate, and that people like Carr cherish about publications like the Times. The turnoff of the film is that it's often sharply slanted to exalt The Gray Lady, with Rossi exhibiting more courtesy than curiosity. With its string of highlighted accomplishments and good judgment calls (partnering with Julian Assange, winning a Pulitzer, running a damning story on the Tribune Company and calling out a major network for a bogus Iraq-exit broadcast), the movie aims for a show-and-tell of the triumphs of on-the-front-lines journalism, but it simultaneously delivers jolts of arrogance (even amidst the acknowledgments of scandal-makers like Judy Miller and Jayson Blair).
Its most revealing and poignant drawing-back of the curtain pertains to layoffs, and how the suddenly par-for-the-course vulnerabilities of the business have infiltrated this hallowed workplace just like any other. “I feel like we should be symbolically wearing butcher smocks around the newsroom,” then-executive editor Bill Keller says in regard to the 100 Times employees who'd lost their jobs by the end of 2009 (Keller himself has since stepped down from his position to be a writer only). “Page One” doesn't exactly demystify a corporation, but it does an exceedingly fine job of encapsulating a moment in time, sensibly surveying where we stand and what the ground looks like. Surely a movie after Carr's own heart, it yanks the reins and looks around. And if it doesn't come up with answers, it honors the spirit of its subject by laying out the facts.