From the timeless Call Northside 777 to the modern day State of Play, via All the President’s Men and The China Syndrome, investigative journalism has been a fundamental part of many classic movies.
This feature will take a look at some of the movies where the ‘story’ and real life occasionally cross-over.
- Call Northside 777 - 1948
Staring Jimmy Stewart as the determined Chicago reporter P.J McNeal, this documentary-inspired film-noir sees him investigate the ten year old murder of a policeman.
After digging deeper into the records and the case itself, he finds himself at odds with the original investigation.
With evidence missing the case seems inconclusive and mounting political pressure and resistance from the police only spur him to continue on with the case, risking all.
Based on a true story, the real-life Frank, Joseph Majczek, eventually received $24,000 for his wrongful imprisonment by the State of Illinois.
- On the Waterfront - 1954
Although the film doesn’t have any investigative journalists in it, the film started out as a series of exposé articles by New York Sun reporter Malcolm Johnson called Crime on the Waterfront. Winning the Pultizer Prize in 1949 the articles told of the corruption and racketeering that was rife on the docks of New York.
Filmed in and around the docks of New York and New Jersey, On the Waterfront stars Marlon Brando as washed-up boxer Terry Malloy who also works as an errand boy for the Mob-connected Union boss, Johnny Friendly.
Often seen as an allegory for the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 50s, in which Elia Kazan named eight supposed communists, On the Waterfront is a dark, compelling tale of one man’s stand for justice.
- Chinatown - 1974
Not strictly an investigative journalist movie, but it is without a doubt, one of the most intelligent and beautifully crafted scripts about a Private Investigator.
Jack Nicholson stars as Jack Gittes, a two-bit PI who makes his living mainly dealing with adultery cases. When one such case leads to a revelation of impostors, murder and intrigue, Gittes sets out to uncover the truth.
It’s Chandleresque; full of smart comebacks and with a smattering of double crossing and the obligatory femme fatale, but true to the film's claustrophobic, bleak mood, the corruption runs too far up for one man to bring to an end on his own.
- All the President’s Men - 1976
This 1976 Academy Award winning political thriller tells the story of journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein and their Watergate investigation.
What begins as a small story about a bungled burglary of Democratic Party headquarters soon turns into a full-blown Presidential cover-up as Woodward and Bernstein stumble on a possible connection between the burglars and a White House employee.
With the film showcasing a range of moral dilemmas and the real-life duo famous for bringing the White House to its knees as well as the live resignation of President Nixon, All the President’s Men packs a serious punch in the investigation journalist stakes.
- The China Syndrome - 1979
Starring Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas as the driven journalist Kimberley Wells and her cameraman Richard Adams, with the legendary Jack Lemmon as whistle blower Jack Godell, this 1979 thriller tells the dangers of nuclear power and the money men, to whom, human life mean nothing.
While researching a story on energy, Fonda and Douglas witness a near-nuclear meltdown at the local plant, which is averted only due to the quick-thinking of Shift Supervisor Godell. Beginning his own investigation, Godell uncovers a web of corporate greed, faulty equipment and cover ups all leading to impending deadly faults within the plant’s construction.
The film carries a very clear anti-nuclear and sobering message, which was given credence, only a couple of weeks after release, when the Three Mile Island nuclear plant suffered a meltdown in Pennsylvania.
- The Insider - 1999
Telling the true story of a lone man who decided to stand up against seven tobacco giants and attempt to inform the public of what the tobacco companies had desperately wanted to keep secret; the health problems linked to their product. Much in the same vein as The China Syndrome, The Insider shows Wigand, played by Russell Crowe being manipulated by 60 Minute producer Al Pacino.
It’s a dark, paranoid thriller; danger seems to lie in wait around every corner, and when the powers that be consider the real story to be too risky air, no matter how newsworthy it may be, the film makes you question what else may have been kept away from the public consciousness.
- Frost/Nixon - 2008
Adapted from Peter Morgan’s West End hit play, this film focuses on the television interviews of former President Richard Nixon by the up and coming BBC journalist, David Frost.
With each man sensing the opportunity to use the interview as a platform to help their careers and believing they can each hold their own, the finished film details the power struggle between the two.
Both Michael Sheen and Frank Langella give mesmerising performances as Frost and Nixon respectively and the film showcases the team’s continual pursuit of the true story, even with the odds stacked against them.
- State of Play - 2009
Based on the BBC mini-series of the same name, State of Play, this American adaptation directed by Kevin McDonald is a film of intrigue, sex and politics.
Journalist Cal McCaffrey’s life is brought into disarray and danger when it is revealed that the mistress of Congressman and friend, Stephen Collins’ is murdered.
What begins with both a suicide and a seemingly unrelated murder soon turns into a game where billions of dollars are at stake and things such as life, friendship and loyalty are all at risk. With its many plot twists and turns State of Play harks back to the days of Hammett , where nothing is what it seems and no one can be truly trusted.
Elles is released 20th April