Barbara Kopple’s ‘Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation’ Informs But Ultimately Disappoints

Cabin Creek Films

The Nation is old. This year marks its 150th birthday, the occasion to which Barbara Kopple’s new documentary is timed. Hot Type: 150 Years of the Nation is a gift to the magazine as it is, a portrait that focuses more on the contemporary work of this icon of “old media” than its historical record. It’s a mixed bag, somewhere between the irksome aesthetics of a celebratory TV special and the observational electricity of Kopple’s 1976 masterpiece, Harlan County USA. And, more than anything else, it’s a film about aging.

Hot Type’s first few minutes include an animation that runs through a century and a half on a single press, printing out The Nation’s most iconic covers with the speed of an old Hollywood newspaper montage. The magazine was founded in the late 1860s as an advocate of the Republican Party and Reconstruction. It mostly flipped to the viewpoint of the Democratic Party in the wake of FDR’s New Deal and hasn’t flipped back. It’s been an icon of the American Left for decades, reaching quite an impressive stride as one of the strongest voices in opposition to the George W. Bush administration.

Yet after the opening sequence, Kopple eschews chronology in favor of an episodic structure that uses the magazine’s past as a colorful context rather than a governing principle. The bulk of the film is made up of distinct segments that follow individual writers on assignment. Executive Editor (then Online Editor) Richard Kim covers Occupy Wall Street, Washington correspondent John Nichols covers the 2011 Wisconsin protests and young reporter Dani McLain covers the Moral Monday protests in North Carolina. Others head out west to observe climate change’s effect on farming or south to Haiti to investigate the earthquake recovery. Most of these sequences end with a throwback reading of an article from The Nation’s back catalogue on a similar issue, read by such famous voices as Susan Sarandon and Sam Waterston, coupled with archival footage.

These many moments of historical resonance, however, are among the film’s weakest. The archival material is left mostly anonymous, breezing on and off screen without much real weight. The voiceover doesn’t help either, nor do the unnecessary interviews with media celebrity guests Rachel Maddow and Bill Moyers. At its worst, Kopple’s film plays like an expensive love letter to the magazine rather than a complex portrait of its personality and its role in American politics.

The best moments of Hot Type come not from distant history or far flung political hot spots, but from within the offices of The Nation itself. Editor and Publisher Katrina vanden Heuvel and Publisher Emeritus Victor Navasky are the charismatic heart and soul of the project. The same is true of other staff members, including Kim and former Executive Editor Betsy Reed. The best sequence in the film is likely the back and forth between Kim and Reed about the aforementioned Occupy Wall Street article. It’s electrifying to see how the words get made and remade and immensely entertaining to watch all of this rare shop talk. When Kopple sticks to the nitty gritty of how this publication functions, using the observational style that governed her equally political 1976 classic, Hot Type really shines.

Kopple also spends a lot of time featuring the magazine’s many efforts to reach out to a younger audience, an increasingly important task. Most of its readers are over 50. She follows the application and interview process of a new batch of interns, shows them learning the ins and outs of journalism and features their year-end meeting with vanden Heuvel in which they recommend new ideas and writers. She gives equal attention to the children of the magazine’s editors, kids who have become outspoken progressive thinkers in their own right.

Yet after of all this youth, the film ends on a confusingly different note. Kopple follows Navasky and vanden Heuvel onto one of their annual cruises, an event mostly popular with their older readers. The last word goes to vanden Heuvel herself, in a speech that insists on the social importance of old magazines and the perspectives of their old readers. This may not be wrong, but it sits oddly in contrast with the rest of the movie.

The same can be said of Kopple’s style. The natural moments are the best, scenes of boardroom discussion and frantic editing. Yet much of this is undercut by insistent voice over, uncreative use of archival footage, and frustrating sequences of packaged historical resonance. Much of Hot Type sits in opposition to itself, and the result is an unfortunately uneven final product.

Daniel is a freelance critic living in Brooklyn. His writing has appeared at Nonfics, The Film Experience, The Brooklyn Rail, Indiewire, and Dok.Revue.