The Reel Dad’s top seven movies about television
“A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” tells a story about Mr. Rogers on television even if he is not the central focus of the film. Over the years, many movies have helped us learn a lot about television. Here are seven of my favorites.
“Network” (1976) predicts a time when the entertainment television creates will overwhelm the medium’s ability to create public good. Paddy Chayefsky imagines a network that decides, for the sake of ratings, to turn news into entertainment. When first released, “Network” looked like a far-fetched fantasy that could never occur; today it seems Chayefsky had an amazing crystal ball to describe, in fascinating detail, the television world we now experience every day.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” (2018) takes a documentary look at how Mr. Rogers could use his television persona to help us think, prompt us to believe, and ask us to hope. Without talking down to the audience - something Mr. Rogers never did, no matter the subject - moviemaker Morgan Neville reminds us that helping people believe in their capacity to absorb can be the best way to encourage them to listen. Especially to things people may not want to hear.
“Quiz Show” (1994) takes us inside the television game show scandals of the 1950s as it teaches us, again, the difference between how people perceive what is right and wrong. We are on the set of “Twenty One”, a popular game show of the period, when Charles Van Doren becomes a national hero after answering a series of difficult questions. Is his victory authentic? Or an effort to garner viewers? Is he sharp or just good at memorizing the answers that someone slips to him?
“The Insider” (1999) explores how, in the media search for truth, the news magazine has become a reliable weekly entry to entertain, inform and - at its best -provoke debate and discussion. The film takes us inside a chapter that “60 Minutes” may want to forget, when network pressure interfered with broadcasting an interview that would have criticized the tobacco industry for disregarding (and misinforming the public about) the hazards of smoking.
“Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005) revisits a moment television could be proud when, in the mid 1950s, broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow confronted U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy for his stands on Communism. Moviemaker George Clooney recreates the tone of the moment in great detail, wisely placing the action in a black-and-white world that captures the nation’s mood. David Strathairn was Oscar nominated for his pitch perfect take on this legendary journalist.
“Broadcast News” (1987) brings writer/director James L. Brooks back into a television newsroom after years behind the scenes of “The Mary Tyler Moore Show” on CBS. This time, Brooks applies his sharp sense of humor to the exaggerated network world that makes stars out of personalities, overlooks inherent intelligence, and places romance on the back burner behind career progression. Holly Hunter, William Hurt and Albert Brooks perfectly hit their marks.
“The Truman Show” (1998) introduces a magical world there the television experience defines the world. Little do we know, as the film begins, just how encompassing this place can be. Jim Carrey shines as a man who has spent his life in what he believes to be the ultimate happy place only to realize his idea of home may be defined by what looks best on camera. Peter Wier’s wise film suggests that, no matter how real something may appear, there’s always room for doubt.
Yes, television is a favorite topic for moviemakers. And film audiences. Enjoy.