I once asked the great documentary filmmaker Fred Wiseman if there was a subject he really wanted to make a movie about but knew he couldn't. His answer was "a great American newspaper," because he knew he'd never get the access to do it right.
I thought about Wiseman when I saw Andrew Rossi's "Page One: Inside The New York Times." Sure enough, he didn't get the access. Instead, he offers up a disappointingly narrow view of the Gray Lady, primarily focusing – when this scattershot documentary bothers to focus at all – on the paper's relatively new media desk. (It was created in 2008, two years before the time when most of "Page One" was filmed, after years in which The Times only glancingly deigned to cover the press.) Even here, the panorama is skewed. Since reportedly both of the women on the desk declined to participate in the film, Rossi homes in on four male journalists – Tim Arango, Brian Stelter, David Carr, and media editor Bruce Headlam.
Headlam gets points for having a big French poster of "Citizen Kane" in his office. Stelter, the wunderkind who started his TVNewser blog while still in college, has a Gumby action figure on his desk – a distinct comedown from "Kane," but perhaps a generational sign of the times (or Times). Carr is given the most screen time. Rossi seems altogether enthralled by his mix of punkish edginess (we are told repeatedly that Carr was once a cocaine addict and single father on welfare) and old-school cynicism (though he is practically devotional about the Times).
Carr is a marvelous camera subject and the only newspaperman in the movie who provides a temperamental link to the old "Front Page" days. The best scene in the movie records his phone conversation, alternately wheedling and damning, with a beleaguered representative from the bankrupt Tribune Co., which he will shortly eviscerate in print.
But giving so much of the movie over to Carr is, in a sense, a kind of abdication, since it also exposes how little else in "Page One" is galvanizing. The turmoil of the newspaper business in the age of the Internet, the seismic shifts in how we obtain and distribute news, the fate of serious journalism – all of this has been hashed over so many times that "Page One," with its parade of quizzical, platitudinous talking heads, adds little to the noise.
Rossi keeps bopping back and forth between scenes about WikiLeaks, Iraq, Comcast, ABC, Watergate, the iPad – you name it. What we don't get to see much of is anything at The Times outside of the media desk. Hardly a mention is made of the national or city news or foreign news desks, not to mention sports or entertainment, all of which might have been more enlivening than the media desk. (When I saw the film at Sundance, Carr said afterward, during a Q-and-A, that "We write about people who write about people who actually do things.")
We do get to sit in on a daily Page 1 meeting presided over by soon-to-be-stepping-down executive editor Bill Keller, but it's all too briefly glimpsed. Much bigger glimpses are provided of The Times's new Renzo Piano-designed headquarters. It's mighty impressive, even if you are aware of the fact that the paper, on shaky financial ground, sold and then leased back part of it in 2009. With all the talk in "Page One" about the demise of print journalism and the rise of new media, this shiny spacious emporium seems like both a beacon and a staggering folly. Grade: B- (Rated R for language including some sexual references.)