'Page One: Inside the New York Times' is Entertaining if Insubstantial

From the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, Christopher Campbell reviews Andrew Rossi's documentary about the New York Times' Media Desk.

Page One documentary
Magnolia Pictures

This review of Page One: Inside the New York Times was originally published on the now-defunct movie blog Cinematical on January 26, 2011, during the 2011 Sundance Film Festival.

The full title of Andrew Rossi‘s Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times is a tad misleading.* It implies a chronological narrative and linear look at the making of the Gray Lady, still the king of newspapers, over the course of twelve months. Instead, it’s an episodic and discontinuous — albeit still very engaging and watchable — documentary primarily focused on the Times‘ media desk and some of its biggest stories, including shifts in new media and the continued hearkening of the death of print journalism.

The film opens assuredly with shots of the printing press and stocks of rolls of newsprint (I won’t lie, I immediately thought of the end of The Green Hornet). Then we meet young reporter Brian Stelter — whose weight appears to fluctuate over the course of the film, likely the most revealing evidence of the non-linear construction — as he works on a story about WikiLeaks’ breakout video controversy last April. Certainly, this is a relevant angle and so appropriately is featured first to hook the viewers.

But don’t expect to find anything more on the topic than a few obvious statements about its significance to and within the world of journalism, and initial reactions from the Times staff, as well as the usual comparison to the Pentagon Papers and how things are quite different than they were decades ago. Similarly light and increasingly dated coverage includes stuff on the release of the iPad, the Times paywall, and parent company the Tribune Co.’s bankruptcy. It’s hard to see exactly where the “year inside” claim comes from since most of the film seems to have been shot around January and April.

The better entry point would be any of the excellent scenes starring media columnist and sometime movie blogger David Carr, undoubtedly the most entertaining character in the film, and one of the standout real-life personalities of the festival’s documentary programming this year (people keep describing him as a rock star in Park City). Bold and profane, and definitely possessing the most interesting background (his dark, addiction-suffering past is documented in the best-selling 2009 memoir The Night of the Gun), I wouldn’t mind seeing a film entirely centered on him. Or, a TV series in which he’d be the Anthony Bourdain of journalism, only more fearsome and confrontational.

In terms of watching the journalistic process, Carr can’t be beaten as far as entertainment value, particularly when he goes off on the guys from Vice magazine during an interview for a piece on their collaboration with CNN. When he’s off-screen, the film is much less entertaining. Page One invites comparisons to other better verite trips to the newsroom, like Control Room, which Rossi worked on as a producer, and the recent Chinese documentary Mouthpiece, which at three hours spoiled me for how long I wish was allotted for this film. Not that it likely would have been any harder or more revelatory, but perhaps we could have been brought further into each episode or at least gotten more of Carr.

Ultimately, the otherwise likable Page One only really fails in its attempt to say something. Rossi spreads the film over too many areas, not knowing whether to simply observe with a Direct Cinema approach or to tie together a greater examination and contemplation of the times of the Times. But if the end “where are they now?” titles (through which we learn that Stelter indeed lost ninety pounds over the course of filming) are any indication, he seems to have mostly been interested in doing a puff piece on the lives and work of the few reporters and Media Desk editor Bruce Headlam — also an enjoyable and compelling character — as opposed to a look at the news industry and process as a whole. That many will think this an important film is reason to label it a dubious sort of journalism itself. So don’t believe the hype, but do enjoy the documentary anyway.

*The title of the documentary was actually changed to just Page One: Inside the New York Times following the original publication of this review.

(Editor in Chief)

Christopher Campbell is the founding editor of Nonfics.