As a media literacy educator, and someone who learned most of what I know from cinema, I love movies that pull back the curtain and show us the hidden side of media. Looking to movies to critique the media industry is a paradox, for sure, but it’s fun to revisit movies I love and examine just how much I learned about media from watching movies. The ten movies I selected challenge the way we see our news, television and advertising media, question the way men and women and race are represented, or underrepresented, in media, and the way we, the audience, are influenced and often exploited by media. The ten movies I selected are also entertaining. And I threw in a couple movies that critique the film industry, for good measure.
10. Broadcast News (1987)
One of my all-time favorite movies, Broadcast News is both a charming, thoughtful comedy of workplace relationships, and a biting, incisive indictment of the news industry. The film exposes a moment in time when broadcast journalism began its descent into the world of 24-hour infotainment (CNN launched just seven years before the film’s release). Director and screenwriter James L. Brooks shows us a world where looks and on-screen presence trump professionalism and actually knowing things; where sensationalism and sentimentality trump facts and objectivity (and, yes, I’m using the word trump intentionally). The greatest accomplishment of the film, however, is in Holly Hunter’s performance and character, a strong, career-oriented woman, struggling with all the assumptions and barriers that come with that. Broadcast News shows just how underrepresented women are behind and in front of the camera, and just how difficult it is for a woman to succeed and maintain her ethics, in a male- and ratings-dominated industry.
9. The Truman Show (1998)
The Truman Show warned us all about our obsession with reality TV, but we didn’t listen. And after 32 (!) seasons of Survivor and 4 (?) of Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, the television industry can’t stop turning reality into Reality TV, and we can’t stop watching! What the actual television industry learned that Ed Harris’ TV producer in the movie didn’t know is that you don’t have to dupe an unsuspecting human into being the object of our obsession – everyday people and minor celebrities are happy and willing to turn their lives into spectacles for our viewing pleasure. Beyond the sad prescience of Peter Weir’s film, The Truman Show also challenges the audience, like its titular character, to stand up to the media absurdity and falsehood that surrounds us at every turn. Just like the media we constantly consume, the contrived world of Truman Burbank is a seamless, rewarding, and seemingly benevolent invention. But, as Truman comes to realize, this invented world can also be a prison that lulls us into complacency, paralyzes us with fear, and exploits our weaknesses. The movie also memorably, and hilariously, takes product placement and native advertising to an extreme – or at least it seemed extreme back in 1998.
8. How to Get Ahead in Advertising (1989)
Bruce Robinson’s underrated, absurdist classic attacks the ethical failings of the advertising industry, and the rampant consumerism it feeds, through the two-headed monster of Richard E. Grant’s cynical and conflicted advertising executive, Denis Bagley. When Bagley has trouble designing a campaign for a boil cream, and begins questioning the ethics of advertising, he grows a boil of his own that turns into a head, with eyes, ears, and a sinister moustache. Bagley’s boil also has a cold, capitalist mentality and bullies Bagley mercilessly until Bagley goes mad. Bagley tries to have the boil removed but the boil takes over Bagley, killing any trace of ethical conflict, and a new, remorseless, ruthless advertising executive is born. How to Get Ahead in Advertising is a critique of Thatcher-era Britain, and its worst materialistic and commercial impulses, and Richard E. Grant’s opening-credit monologue is a perfect, crash course in critical advertising literacy.
7. Rear Window (1954)
The movie that presaged our screen culture, Alfred Hitchcock’s claustrophobic, creeping nightmare of our voyeuristic impulses is as relevant now as ever. Jimmy Stewart plays a wheelchair-bound photographer, Jeff Jeffries, who watches his neighbors from the distance and safety of his Greenwich Village apartment window, much as he views the world as a photographer – through the lens of his own perspective. Unable to leave his apartment, Jeffries lives vicariously through the arguments, celebrations, and heartaches of his neighbors as we, the audience, also do. Hitchcock’s camera never leaves the confines of Jeffries’ domestic theater and Jeffries passively watches these mini-tragedies unfold before him, an escape from the monotony of his wheelchair-bound existence. Hitchcock is pointing a finger at his own audience while also taking us for a ride. As Stewart’s character begins to piece together a possible murder, he and we are no closer to the truth than what little plays out before our eyes. Rear Window is a reaction to the act of watching that had become such a central value in American life with the huge popularity of cinema and the rising tide of television. Viewing the world through screens keeps us safe from the messiness of reality, but allows us, the voyeurs, to feel as if we’re tuned in to some greater reality. For the moviegoer, life seems more real when it’s lived through the shadows on the screen, or from the window in Jeffries’ case, and Rear Window jolts us out of our passive gaze. Today, screens are central to every part of our daily lives, not just our pastime and our fantasies. Rear Window shows us what all those screens have turned us into – peeping toms.
6. The Player (1992)
Robert Altman’s scathing Hollywood satire exposes the phony commercialism of the so-called ‘dream factory’. The movie revels in the glorious history of American cinema, from the referential opening shot to the film-noirish plot, while lamenting modern Hollywood’s empty quest for prestige and maximum profits. Altman’s Hollywood is a never-ending parade of business meetings and celebrity parties, where the executives run the show and the sniveling artists are disposable. Producers are always wishing they could make the great pictures of the past while reducing every new idea to ‘Pretty Woman meets Out of Africa’ box office appeal. One ambitious executive wants to eliminate the writers out of the process completely, suggesting newspaper headlines could provide the next big picture: “‘Further Bond Losses Push Dow Down 7.15.’ I see Connery as Bond.” Characters constantly push for purity while simultaneously suggesting the studio should do a remake of The Bicycle Thief. No film captures the conveyor belt of mediocrity that propels Hollywood better than The Player. Altman even gives us the cliched, star-studded, happy ending we all secretly crave. Plus a little sex and violence.
Ready for part 2 with my top five? Check it out here.