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Jeff Simon: Showtime's 'Fourth Estate,' HBO's 'Tale' are unprecedented TV

Jeff Simon

"All the President's Men" set the precedent.

We'd seen great newspaper movies since the '30's, but never before did newspaper movies mythologize the actual way modern journalists work.

Then came Ron Howard's "The Paper." Then "Spotlight," which could almost be thought of as a sequel to "All the President's Men" in its faithful portrait of the doggedness and actual heroism of investigative journalism.

Steven Spielberg, no less, did a kind of actual prequel to "All the President's Men" called "The Post," the story of how the Washington Post became the sort of paper that would pursue a baffling late-night burglary right into recorded conversations in the oval office.

If you think you've now seen everything filmmakers have to show you about the way American newspapers really are, forget about it.

Right now, amid the digital holocaust and the most troubling financial moment in American journalistic history, the most accurate newspaper movie of them all has premiered on the Showtime Network. It's more than a movie, in fact; it's an unprecedented documentary TV series devoted to the New York Times.

It made last weekend the finest TV weekend in years. Not only was it the weekend that saw the premiere of Liz Garbus' "The Fourth Estate" about the Times on Showtime, it was the weekend that premiered Jennifer Fox's "The Tale" on HBO, which was the first time I know of that Hollywood has fearlessly fictionalized a tale of pedophilia that was, in reality, the first-person tale of the filmmaker when she was a young girl.

What people are calling "Peak TV" has become stunning almost as a matter of routine. It's extraordinary, utterly extraordinary.

"The Fourth Estate" is a multipart documentary about the "failing" New York Times in the age of Trump, whose reporters have covered Trump for so long they know how much he craves the paper's certification of his worthiness. If you go into Showtime on demand now, you can watch its first four episodes. Otherwise you can continue to catch it all over Showtime's various cable networks, as it unfolds brilliantly and weekly.

Journalists know B.S. from Shinola. It's an essential distinction we're paid to make.

"The Fourth Estate" is as close as any documentarian has ever come to showing, in minute detail, the actual operation of a major newspaper. It only stands to reason that with the paper considered the greatest in the English language, in its first year of covering a president unlike one we ever even imagined, would be riveting.

That isn't all "The Fourth Estate" covers inside the newsrooms of the New York Times. You see the Times people chase down Bill O'Reilly's hush money payments to abused former co-workers and the stories about Harvey Weinstein whose revealed secret life has utterly transformed America and rattled — and sometimes reconfigured — every sexual rule a successful American male in Western Civilization took for granted. (It isn't just American movie studios and cable news networks that are losing presidents and stars, it's the committee that bestows the Nobel Prize for Literature that was forced to take a yearlong nap to quiet the howlings at the door.)

In the opening episode of "The Fourth Estate," you watch the anger and frustration of an executive in the Times Washington bureau as the "lede graf" and headline of her people's "State of the Union" story is completely rewritten in the digital edition by the paper's management in New York. That is not something I've ever seen on TV before. (Their original focus — on Trump's immigration policies — has stood the test of time better than the New York revision.)

You also see things far less momentous, but just as bursting with uncommon veracity. There is, for instance, a Times investigator who's a divorced father getting his two preteen kids up and ready for school. When he asks them what they should listen to on the radio, the older one — a daughter — replies "the news," which causes a keening wail from his young son, "Noooo, not the news, music."

You not only watch much-honored Times reporter Maggie Haberman pursue stories and chat on the phone with Trump to confirm facts (thereby confirming what he's always known about her: No one could be less "fake"), but also watch her excuse herself for a couple minutes from a fledgling Times podcast to go off alone with her cellphone and talk down an upset child.

Every actual journalist in the world watching "The Fourth Estate" is likely to cheer at top volume. That's it. That's what a modern-day newspaper actually looks like in its daily operation.

The extremely gifted documentarian who is doing something better than I've ever seen it done before is Liz Garbus, whose previous films include "Bobby Fischer Against the World." She is the daughter of Martin Garbus, the storied first amendment and civil rights lawyer. Her mother is writer, therapist and social worker Ruth Meitin Garbus.

It isn't just her nature that is remarkable; it's her nurture, too. Along with her premium DNA, her biography shares the news that she was a magna cum laude graduate of Brown University.

There is nothing oppressively academic or predicatable about "The Fourth Estate." This is a woman who spent a year observing and recording one of America's most important institutions in a dramatic crisis period in its history, as it follows social and political and cultural transformations few of us dreamed of.

Showtime matter-of-factly tells us she was granted "unprecedented access to the editors and reporters on the front lines." There isn't an ounce of hyperbole in it. Or fakery either. This is verite at its most charismatic.


Almost as unprecedented is "The Tale," an autobiographical fictional film by Jennifer Fox starring Laura Dern as a documentary filmmaker who uses her investigative techniques to explore her own past relationship to a man who began a relationship with her when she was a pubescent girl of 13.

Its subject matter and candor make it harrowing and difficult to watch to put it mildly, but what is stunning here is we are getting this tale from the woman who survived a life very much like it.

Which means it is fiercely true to a teenage girl — one of five kids — and her desire to be an individual while the audience watches a moral monstrosity performed onscreen.

In HBO's publicity, as well as the credits of the film, Fox makes it explicitly clear adult body doubles were used in the non-explicit sex scenes with Jason Ritter, not Isabelle Nelisse, the young actress playing Fox's 13-year old self.

What Fox is doing that you've never seen before is looking at hazily remembered trauma from the eyes of an adult investigating her own past.

"My goal was to ask, 'Did this happen? Because I always remembered it.' It was how and why did it happen and how and why did I spin it as a positive story? There was a lightbulb moment when I was making another film about women all around the world, but it seemed that every other woman — regardless of class culture or color — had an abuse story to tell. Their stories just floored me, because they had a system or a paradigm that looked like my story. Suddenly I couldn't see it as my own private little narrative and knew it was time to investigate what happened in the open space of a fictional film."

That HBO let her do it — in a cast that included Dern, Common and Ellen Burstyn — is remarkable. I don't know the #MeToo movement has produced anything more disturbing on film thus far.

It's ground-breaking to say the least.

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