Having been a journalist for over two decades, I usually find much to laugh about in the depiction of reporters in the movies. Hacks on the silver screen usually go running from one scoop to the next, without ever having to do any of the hard work or put up with the mundane stuff that is always involved in digging out a “story”.

They always have sources who materialise just in time in an underground parking lot, and hand them big brown envelopes with photos and documents that help them put together that big story just ahead of the newspaper’s deadline. If only life were that simple.

For me, only a handful of movies have captured the true spirit of the newsroom, the drudgery, the dilemmas and the dangers that are associated with journalism and the hunt for the elusive scoop. That short list would include “All The President’s Men”, “The Killing Fields”, “Zodiac” and the film that is the subject of this post – “Absence Of Malice”. 

Directed by the veteran Sydney Pollack in 1981, “Absence Of Malice” is a fine and nuanced study of the ethics of journalism and the question of how far a reporter can go in search of a story.

Megan Carter (Sally Field) is the journalist who’s suckered by an investigator into running a fake story – what we hacks would call a “plant” – about a mob boss’s straight-arrow son, Michael Gallagher (Paul Newman), being the suspect in an investigation into the disappearance of a labour union leader.

The investigators are hoping that Carter’s report will put the squeeze on Gallagher and force him to cooperate in the investigation. Gallagher obviously has connections to relatives who are in the mob but runs a business that is above board. As Gallagher’s world comes crashing down after Carter’s report – the labour union forces its members not to work at his firm and his contracts suffer – he complains to the newspaper but no one is willing to hear his side of the story.

Carter is obviously attracted to Gallagher and dates him before spending a night with him. When Gallagher’s troubled friend Teresa Perron (Melinda Dillion), a devout Catholic, comes forward to tell Carter that Gallagher was with her, helping her with an abortion, at the time the labour union leader, Carter thinks nothing of printing up the story for another page one byline, despite Perron telling her that she doesn’t want her name in the papers.

On seeing her story in the newspaper, Perron takes a desperate step that soon has Gallagher concocting an elaborate scheme to clear his name and set things right.

The film features fine performances from Bob Balaban as investigator Elliot Rosen, who is willing to bend the rules to get things done his way, and Wilford Brimley, who surprisingly was playing his first important role in a film despite being 47 at the time. Brimley’s character, a senior prosecutor, is on screen for just one scene that lasts less than fifteen minutes but he makes a huge impression.

Other major strengths are the film’s smart screenplay by Kurt Luedtke, a former newspaperman, and the score by Dave Grusin, who often collaborated with director Sydney Pollack. In fact, the film’s opening, which features a newspaper being put together in the early era of computers, brought back many happy memories. Some reviewers have criticised the depiction of the reporter in this film, but all I can say is I have met a few journalists in my career who were willing to plumb the same depths as Megan Carter.

Highly recommended, especially if you are a journalist or in any way interested in journalism.

* For two other interesting takes on this movie, go here and here.

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