I must confess up front that I’m a junkie for films about the world of newspaper journalism. From All the President’s Men (1976) to Spotlight (2015), I love movies about crusading reporters and quests to discover the truth. It’s not a surprise, really. I have a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia.
I worked as a film critic and staff writer for the student newspaper throughout my undergrad studies. I remember spending my nights as a 19-year-old literally cutting print copy with an Exact-O knife and pasting up the pages before they went to press. There’s something about the culture of a newsroom and its commitment to the art of communication that I find irresistible.
And, no, there’s no “But this movie is a huge disappointment” looming in that introduction. Obit, the new documentary from director Vanessa Gould about the obituary writers for the New York Times, is a fascinating look at a journalistic world that rarely receives any recognition. The film gives audiences an insider’s view of the editorial decisions that go into determining who receives an obituary in our national newspaper of record.
Not only does Obit give us a peek behind that curtain, but it’s also an object lesson in agenda setting. Deciding what news to cover and what news not to cover can frame the national conversation. It’s impossible to remain 100% “objective” when you first must decide what is and isn’t newsworthy. It’s a journalistic Catch-22. I’m reminded of the lyrics of an old song by the Canadian rock trio Rush: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
When it comes to the art of writing an obituary, one writer points out that only the first paragraph is about the person’s death. The rest of the piece is about life. Through interviews with writers and on-the-job footage, we see the talent it takes to distill an entire life into 600 or 800 words. Being concise is a skill, an exercise in precision. Another staff writer offers a joke to illustrate his point: An editor tells a reporter to give him a story on a local news event and “keep it short”. The reporter responds: “I don’t have the time.”
Many events and national personalities are obvious topics for a documentary: the murder prosecution of famous football star (O.J.: Made in America), the global refugee crisis (Fire at Sea) or the growing African-American prison population in this country (13th). Obit spends 90 minutes examining an obscure part of an industry that the audience has likely never given a second thought and makes you glad that you came along for the ride.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.