Blu-Ray Review: ‘Page One’ Chronicles Best of Times, Worst of Times

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CHICAGO – Billing Andrew Rossi’s documentary “Page One” as a year in the life of The New York Times is a trifle misleading. Such a sprawling premise would demand a running time better suited to a miniseries than a 92-minute feature. Rossi limits his focus to the Media Desk and the reporters struggling to keep their paper relevant, but like all great documentaries, the film is about so much more than the figures inhabiting its foreground.

In fact, “Page One” may be the best film yet made about the current crises facing American journalists, whose authoritative voice is gradually being drowned out an endless stream of bloggers. Just as another NYC publication, Vogue, considers itself the center of the fashion universe (and is well-chronicled by R.J. Cutler’s “The September Issue”), the Times positions itself as the trend-setting news source that second-tier papers scramble to imitate. Though Rossi provides plenty of footage to back up this claim, he also refuses to shy away from the shameful episodes that momentarily derailed the Times’ credibility. Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0

With their paper’s stock plummeting and major competitors facing bankruptcy, the Times staff has found innovative ways to keep their work relevant and readily accessible. The hiring of blogger Brian Stelter as a media reporter proved to be especially beneficial, ensuring that the Times would remain a major source of national conversation on social networking sites (Stelter has repeatedly urged his fellow co-workers to join Twitter). When WikiLeaks made government secrets readily available to the public, it’s no surprise that the Times published them, since it’s hardly the first time the paper righteously garnered controversy (Rossi includes a well-timed flashback to the Pentagon Papers). It still has yet to be seen whether the decision to have readers pay to view content online will be a fatal misstep, though the emergence of portable computers like the iPad hints at the eventual demise of printed papers altogether. None of these insights are earth-shattering, but Rossi gives them a sense of urgency by showing that even an icon with a lifespan as seemingly eternal as the Times is facing the exact same obstacles as every single paper in America. There isn’t a journalist on this planet that wouldn’t benefit from a screening of this picture.

David Carr is featured in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One.
David Carr is featured in Andrew Rossi’s documentary Page One.
Photo credit: Magnolia Home Entertainment

That being said, the film may have benefited from interviews with a few more major figures at the paper, namely executive editor Bill Keller and his eventual replacement Jill Abramson. Though the Media Desk is headed by editor Bruce Headlam, a conspicuous majority of the screen time is devoted to columnist David Carr, whose impassioned views often dominate the filmmaker’s swayed gaze. As a former crack addict, Carr’s life has all the makings of a classic underdog story, and his temperamental nature does create some memorable onscreen conflict. During a heated debate, Carr wipes the floor with a Newser rep by presenting a printed sheet of stories from the man’s site, followed by the same sheet with stories repurposed from print sources removed. Needless to say, the sheet has more holes than a slice of Swiss cheese.
Yet Carr meets his match when sparring with blogger Markos Moulitsas, who argues against the danger of blindly following a singular voice in the media landscape, while affirming that writers such as former Times reporter Judith Miller badly damaged the paper’s reputation. Miller’s coverage of the Iraq war was based on false intelligence reports and was subsequently blamed for helping guide the public opinion into support of the war. In a brief but potent archival interview with Miller, she’s asked whether she feels that relying solely on the information concealed within an intelligence report reduces her role to little more than a stenographer. That’s the question currently facing future generations of reporters, many of which have gotten their start online. With Google searches serving as a replacement for “hitting the streets,” can the old school model of investigative journalism truly be preserved? Rossi wisely avoids providing a pat answer to such a statement, but its implications are guaranteed to haunt viewers for days.

Page One was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 18, 2011.
Page One was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on Oct. 18, 2011.
Photo credit: Magnolia Home Entertainment

“Page One” is presented in 1080p High Definition (with a 2.35:1 aspect ratio) and includes additional interview footage with whistleblowers such as former Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah Ellison (who dishes on the predatory competitiveness of Rupert Murdoch) and Washington Post journalist Carl Bernstein, who certainly knows a thing or two about the importance of public media. Bernstein voices his belief that the Times website goes deeper into the issues than the paper ever did, while claiming that the real danger facing journalists is conglomerates like Gannett, which have drained community papers of their distinctive voice. Among the 22 minutes of deleted scenes, the best of the bunch details what happened after NBC broke the phony, ratings driven story about the end of the Iraq War. As an exhausted Stelter attempts to write about the non-event, with his journalistic instincts merging dangerously with criticism, Headlam ultimately comes to the conclusion that the article can’t be run. It’s a vital moment of fallibility that makes the reporters’ pursuit of the truth resonate on a more relatable level. We’re also offered an enlightening look at The Texas Tribune and its efforts to get nonpartisan news out through audible and visual means. Yet as one talking head notes, a blinking banner ad online just isn’t as effective as a full-page ad in a paper.
One of the most surprising bits of behind-the-scenes trivia is revealed in a terrific 17-minute Q&A montage, when Rossi admits that the film was originally structured to be a profile of Carr, but the director was urged by his subject to take a broader approach to the material. Thus, Carr may be the reason why “Page One” came off as well as it did. He also has many funny moments in the bonus material, such as his various failed attempts to record a video blog in his basement (which are interrupted by his boiler room) and his memories of quietly freaking out when grilling Tribune Headquarters. Yet the best extra by far is an all-too-brief “mini-feature” about the Times’ Baghdad bureau chief Tim Arango and his collaboration with the extraordinarily accomplished war photographer João Silva. Though Silva lost his legs after stepping on a mine while on duty in Afghanistan, he is determined to continue his career and returned to work this past July. If Rossi is still interested in centering a film on one man, few are as worthy of such a profile as Silva.

‘Page One’ is released by Magnolia Home Entertainment and features David Carr, Bruce Headlam, Brian Stelter, Bill Keller, Tim Arango, Carl Bernstein and Julian Asange. It was written by Kate Novack and Andrew Rossi and directed by Andrew Rossi. It was released on Oct. 18, 2011. It is rated R. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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