I finished Netflix.
Well, almost. At least it seems that way after you've been housebound due to a pandemic. Millions of Americans have streamed movies on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, HBO Max and Disney+ by the hundreds over the past year—as worldwide streaming subscriptions passed the one billion mark.
Sometime back, I posted a Top 10 list of my favorite movies from the worlds of journalism and public relations. As a former newspaper reporter turned PR and marketing agency owner, I find it fascinating to observe and analyze how Hollywood portrays these professions.
Apparently you do, too. This post has gotten thousands of visits over the years from folks just like you, which made it worthy of a 2021 update. And because I've had more time on my hands for streaming movies, I've expanded my list from a Top 10 to a Top 20.
I used four criteria to select and rank the movies on this list. They are:
OK, here we go — the Top 20, in reverse order.
20. Phone Booth (2003). This movie is about an arrogant PR guy who spends an entire movie in a phone booth. Yes, I know there's no such thing as phone booths anymore. So it's not the most modern public relations take you can find on Netflix. But if you're in PR and have felt a little claustrophobic lately, you've got two big reasons to empathize with Colin Farrell's character right off the bat. The story concerns a sniper who pins Farrell down in the kiosk and forces him to confess his infidelities and other sins. He ultimately admits his whole life is a lie. Of course he had to be a PR guy, right? Stereotypes.
19. The Wizard of Oz (1939). This is a classic that you've probably seen about 100 times since you were a child. I honestly don't know that it's a great film, but Judy Garland is captivating and the music and colors still pop off the screen like they did 80 years ago. It's on the list because the climax of the film qualifies as one of the slickest PR stunts of all time. This foursome trudges all this way to Oz, fighting off a witch and flying monkeys and scary talking trees and everything else. Then, they kill the witch on the wizard's orders before finding out the man behind the curtain is actually a fraud (real name: Oscar Diggs). Somehow Diggs recovers from this potentially career-ending discovery simply by giving his visitors a handful of trinkets and an inspirational speech. Amazing.
18. King Kong (2005). This one features a PR stunt that didn't go so well. Greedy folks steal a giant gorilla from a remote island, transport him to Manhattan and make him the highlight of a garish freak show. The result: lots of people get stomped to death and even poor Kong falls to his death in the end. "It was beauty killed the beast," the character Carl Denham famously concludes. You could argue it was actually bad PR that killed it.
17. Jersey Girl (2004). I'm not a big Kevin Smith fan, and Ben Affleck became a better actor later in his career, but this is a decent old-fashioned story of a high-powered New York publicist who figures out what's really important in life after becoming a single dad. We also get to see Affleck raise a glass to share this toast: "To my fellow flacks and spin doctors, salute!"
16. The Devil Wears Prada (2006). Based on writer Laura Weisberger's experience working as a lackey for imperious Vogue editor Anna Wintour, this movie is not only hilarious but sheds light on the difficulties of breaking into the New York media business out of J-school and the compromises one must make to get ahead. And of course, there's the scene where Emily Blunt opens and closes her hand at Anne Hathaway and snaps, "I'm hearing this (hand open), and I want to be hearing this (hand closed)." Classic.
15. The Paper (1994). I saw this one when it came out and liked it. But when I started to write about it for this post, I realized I'd forgotten virtually everything about it. That's how it goes for me with most Ron Howard movies. I'll give it props, though, for its story. While films about the practice of journalism tend to focus on the work of dogged investigative teams chasing the same story for weeks or months, The Paper is all about the daily grind of local newspaper reporting. It's something we are quickly losing. The Paper is valuable as a history lesson if nothing else.
14. Anchorman (2004). I'll take Anchorman over The Paper if I'm choosing between them, even though The Paper is arguably the more substantial of the two. Why? I actually remember Anchorman, as do most of those who've seen it. That's why it has spawned some of the most repeated movie lines of all time (e.g., "That escalated quickly.") It's Will Ferrell's best performance by a mile, it's funny as hell, and it has some useful insights into 1970s-era sexism in the mass media, without being a total downer on the subject like Mad Men usually was. It deserves to be on this list.
13. The Insider (1999). Inspired by true events, The Insider tells the story of a research chemist who comes under attack after agreeing to participate in a "60 Minutes" expose on Big Tobacco. As the whistleblower, Russell Crowe is a tragic figure attempting to make amends for past choices. But when CBS refuses to air the segment for fear it might interfere with the network's pending sale to Westinghouse, and "60 minutes" journalists refuse to fight the decision, the whistleblower realizes he's not the only one who has made moral compromises. Corporate owners quashing journalistic independence has only accelerated in the past two decades.
12. Thank You for Smoking (2005). Speaking of Big Tobacco, people like Russell Crowe's whistleblower are the reason why people like Nick Naylor exist. Naylor (Aaron Eckhart) is spokesman for the Academy of Tobacco Studies; he's a spinmeister of the darkest (and most darkly humorous) sort. After Naylor leaves the industry with anti-tobacco lawsuits mounting, he forms his own agency -- Naylor Strategic Relations -- where he helps the cellphone industry fight off claims that phones cause brain cancer. As Naylor puts it: "Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent."
11. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (2019). This movie brought back memories of my more cynical younger self. Assigned to write a story on kid-show host Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks), journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) simply can't believe Rogers is as nice as people say he is. This resonated with me, because it's the same mentality I had when I went into journalism after college. Ultimately, Vogel's fruitless quest to find Rogers' dark side becomes a life-changing therapeutic experience for the writer. It's a deeply personal story that is really Vogel's more than Rogers'.
10. Good Night, and Good Luck (2005). A well-crafted reminder of an earlier era of television journalism, when in 1954 newsman Edward R. Murrow brought down demagogic Senator Joseph McCarthy through sheer force of integrity. David Strathairn does a masterful job of playing Murrow, and George Clooney co-stars and directs with aplomb, with black-and-white cinematography and carefully staged scenes that truly evoke that golden era.
9. Broadcast News (1987). This was a good comedy when it first came out, mostly because of Holly Hunter's breakout performance. Now, I find it a bit heartbreaking to watch. The movie is ultimately about journalistic ethics. What's the big ethical quandary? Hunter's TV news producer breaks up with William Hurt's slick reporter after she discovers that Hurt faked a sympathetic tear on camera in one of his news segments. That's all? Yep, that's all. It was a different world back then. I think it's fair to say Hunter's character would not have been a big fan of sponsored content.
8. The Post (2017). The movie tells the story of Katharine Graham, the first female publisher of an American newspaper, and the battle between The Washington Post and The New York Times to break open the Pentagon Papers scandal in 1971. But what it's really about is the tightrope that rich and powerful media magnates have to walk when a scandal touches their rich and powerful friends. Another standout Meryl Streep performance.
7. Spotlight (2015). I have to start this one with a confession: this is the one entry on this list I haven't actually seen. I may break down and watch it eventually, but I have consistently avoided it for six years now so who knows? The topic of child molestation makes me physically ill. But the Society of Professional Journalists ranked more than 100 films about journalism and put Spotlight at No. 1, so I can't just leave it out. According to the SPJ magazine Quill, Spotlight "avoids cluttering the (story) with subplots and unnecessary background on the news team. This is a film that trusts its audience to care about what’s important and to respect the work involved in uncovering it." OK, I'll watch it. Eventually.
6. Network (1976). An anchorman named Howard Beale slowly goes stark raving mad and sees his ratings skyrocket as a result. Rather than get him professional help, executives at the UBS television network exploit Beale's newfound popularity and decide to make the rest of the network's news programming just as crazy. Sound like anything you've seen on cable lately? As Beale puts it in the film's most famous line: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"
5. Almost Famous (2000). This is probably the sweetest, gentlest coming-of-age story I've ever seen and it features 20-year-old Kate Hudson in her best performance, as a '70s rock groupie who befriends a teenage rock journalist. For those of us who pursued a career in journalism, this movie is a heartfelt reminder of the passion for writing and longing for adventure that attracted us in the first place. I've never met anyone who doesn't love it.
4. Capote (2005). Good Night, and Good Luck is a very good film, but this movie, which came out the same year and was also nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, resonated far more with me. In my experience, most journalists (and most people for that matter) are anti-heroes like Truman Capote, not heroes like Edward R. Murrow. Capote deceived and betrayed his subject, killer Perry Smith, to write "In Cold Blood" -- but this pioneering true-crime saga became the most celebrated nonfiction work of the 20th century. The movie asks its audience, "Were the lies worth it?"
3. Citizen Kane (1941). Universally recognized as one of the greatest films of all time, Citizen Kane tells the story of Charles Foster Kane, loosely based on the life of "yellow journalism" pioneer William Randolph Hearst, who put ethics aside in his sensational newspaper war with Joseph Pulitzer in the late 19th century. This is a film that holds up well for being nearly 80 years old, and arguably sheds some insight into the thinking of some of today's media moguls. Watch it if you haven't already seen it.
2. All the President's Men (1976). Like Network, this movie was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1977, but the two films share starkly different visions. While Network foretells the cheapening and decline of commercial journalism, All the President's Men portrays the profession as central to public trust in our democracy (charges of "fake news" notwithstanding). This procedural on the Watergate investigation offers a thrilling ride while adhering to the facts far better than most Hollywood "true stories." It also inspired countless young people to become reporters at a time when Americans had greater appreciation for the contributions of the fourth estate; today, kids aspire to be CEOs instead.
1. Sweet Smell of Success (1957). If this is a surprise choice, it really shouldn't be. This droll film noir feels as fresh and alive today as it did when it debuted more than 60 years ago. It crackles with the energy of a Manhattan all-nighter while issuing a stunning takedown of a Walter Winchell-like gossip columnist. The film explores the relationship dynamics between two ruthless, amoral people -- down-on-his-luck publicist Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis) and all-powerful columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster). It was a time when a Hunsecker byline could make or break its subject—and he used the power of his byline viciously. I watch a lot movies -- like I said, I finished Netflix -- and I have never come across a film with smarter or funnier dialogue. As Hunsecker tells Falco at one point: "I'd hate to take a bite out of you. You're like a cookie full of arsenic." And so is this film.
Journalists rightly complain these days about all the grief they take; it's a tough profession to be in during an era of relentless "fake news" accusations. Most of the films on this list, however, make journalists look good -- typically as heroic, if imperfect, crusaders for justice. PR and advertising folks, meanwhile, are depicted as two-faced, unethical hotshots who will do anything for a client.
Not only that, but you'll also notice that there are far more great journalism movies than great PR movies. It's not fair really -- but Tony Curtis as the smarmy publicist in Sweet Smell of Success is absolutely brilliant, so we'll let Hollywood off the hook this time.