Note: This is the second in a series of pieces I will be doing about the past work of this year’s Best Director nominees. You can find the first article here.
Ron Howard’s The Paper
In light of Quaid’s recent post about Frost/Nixon, I won’t reiterate how unnerved we at MovieChopShop are about the undeserved amount of acclaim that film is getting. It is standard, it is obvious, it is made for an audience member with the attention span of a four-year-old and, by this year’s standards at least, it is Oscar-worthy.
But the film’s acclaim makes a look into the career of its author, Mr. Ron Howard, a little more interesting. I can remember a time in the mid-to-late-nineties when I couldn’t help but feel that Ron Howard was a truly gifted filmmaker. As an artist, he has always fallen short of the chops or balls that we see in the work of Tarantino or Soderbergh, but when those guys were shaking off the hangovers of their early successes and trying to carve out careers, Howard already had one that was alive and well.
We all knew him as Opie, but Splash, Cocoon, Backdraft, and Far and Away showed him rejecting the title of Mayberry’s first son. Apollo 13 marked a turning point in 1995; a colossal financial and critical success, Howard was now at the top of the tier of mainstream Hollywood directors. Ransom cemented this even further. Then, looking at the course of his career, we get a few glimmers of inspiration interspersed with some monumental duds. How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Da Vinci Code, The Missing, and Edtv should be shown to film students as cautionary tales about what not to do when the world is your oyster. A Beautiful Mind may have took four Oscars, but time has shown it to be fairly obvious, dispensable awards season fare, held together only by powerful Russell Crowe and Jennifer Connelly performances. And don’t worry, I didn’t forget Cinderella Man, also known as “just-like-Seabiscuit-except-the-horse-is-now-a-boxer.”
Howard’s sense of humor and sense of relevance now only translate into things that either your little sister or your grandparents would want to see. His movies are now either shooting for big box office or lots of critical attention. He’s lost the ability (possibly the price of huge success) to make a footnote movie, a movie that exists for neither purpose, but simply because the filmmaker believes in it.
If he wants to rediscover this part of himself, he should sit down with a movie he made in 1993 called The Paper, the ultimate movie about riding a wave of passion toward an uncertain end. The film tracks 24 hours with a trashy Manhattan daily called The Sun and the whacked out lives that its staff navigates in keeping the balls of work, family, professional ambition and personal integrity all in the air at the same time.
Most of the action centers on Hackett (Michael Keaton), the assistant managing editor who is starting a very complicated day. His wife (Marisa Tomei) is eight months pregnant and is jittery about what the new baby will mean for their lives. He has a big job interview scheduled at an uptown paper that is larger in scale but, Hackett senses, smaller in excitement. A story has broken out involving two black youths accused of a crime we know they didn’t commit, which Hackett learns in the course of the story.
His nemesis is Alicia Clarke (Glenn Close), the paper’s managing editor who wants to run what they have on the story and fix it tomorrow. As deadline approaches, Hackett gets more and more desperate and takes his star columnist, McDougal (Randy Quaid) on a mission to get the quote they need before the front page is locked. In the process they will engage with difficult sources, press room fistfights, an angry column subject who wants revenge, irascible uptown news editors, and once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to yell “stop the presses,” all executed by Howard and his actors in fairly screwball fashion, but delicious nonetheless.
The thing that is special about The Paper, and the thing that sets it apart from most of Howard’s other films, is the energy. Much of this is owed to screenwriters David and Stephen Koepp, but also to the sense that Howard has found a story that he is truly passionate about and wants to bring to an audience. The gift he brings to the material is to do this without going over-the-top. As cinema-goers we have been trained (probably from watching shows like The West Wing and ER) to expect many moving single take camera shots in stories that involve a lot of characters in one location. Howard takes an alternate approach with this film, using the moving camera at times but situating a large part of the story in the offices of Hackett and the Editor In Chief, Bernie White (Robert Duvall), allowing it to unfold without making it seem artificially busy with the camera constantly jumping around.
The picture is also extremely well cast. Keaton, so underused in recent years, may be the best actor in the business at seeming to talk faster than he can actually think. That quality serves him well here; he knows he doesn’t have the story, but seems to think that he can talk fast enough and the hold the world at bay long enough then maybe things will work out. Close plays Alicia not as an uptight career woman but as a journalist trapped in her role of executive, never certain of which side she should be serving. Quaid’s McDougal is a treasure; a weary cowboy of a newsman, he spends most of the story sacked out on Hackett’s couch with a gun tucked in a belt, a precaution against angry readers. Usually with a dazed, sleep deprived expression in his eyes, McDougal seems to have lived in newsrooms for centuries.
By the look of things, The Sun seems to have existed for centuries. Howard and his production designer, Todd Hallowell, clearly understand this setting. Watch for the maintenance man popping up throughout to repair fluorescent light fixtures. Also, look at the way they depict Robert Duvall’s office: overflowing ashtrays, a half-full bottle of Sunkist, a T.V. on silently in the background, piles and piles of unexamined papers. Duvall seems to have lived in this office for more years than he’d care to admit.
There are plenty of things in The Paper that seem particularly sitcomish (I doubt McDougal could fire a shot in the office without incurring some professional consequences) but that it gets away with them is part of its charm. It’s hard to find fault in a movie that gives you so much to like, and I wish that Howard would make another film like it. He believes in his story the same way that Hackett believes in his, and they both attack it with the same passion and energy. I just saw that they have announced an Arrested Development movie to be directed by Howard for 2010. He should give The Paper another look before he starts work on that.