Notes for Charlize Theron: What are the challenges to making a journalist biopic?

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The lives of war correspondents are ripe with both lulls and action, and they’ve been translated, both truthfully and stuffed full of fiction, onto film for decades.

Charlize Theron is in talks to co-produce a biopic of slain war reporter Marie Colvin, according to The Hollywood Reporter. The story is based on the Vanity Fair article “Marie Colvin’s Private War” optioned by producer Basil Iwanyk and Thunder Road’s Peter Lawson. Theron would not only be taking on the challenge of representing a real-life journalist in a believable yet cinematic way, but a female journalist, which brings added complexities.

Colvin was killed in February 2012 at age 56 covering the uprising in Syria for England’s The Sunday Times. She wore an eye patch after losing sight in her left eye during a blast while reporting in Sri Lanka in 2001.

“As a journalist, I find frustration in the ways journalism has been portrayed in recent years. The Sex and the City of women journalists, where they’re all wearing $3,000 heels,” said Jennifer L. Pozner, director of Women In Media & News, a media analysis and advocacy group for women. “The best journalism biopics focus on the nuts and bolts of how to do this job, how to uncover corruption. The worst biopics focus on the glamor and the glitz and the intrigue. We associate usually the macho, salt-and-pepper haired man with gravitas. A biopic about a woman doing war reporting in Syria could really help the public get an idea of women reporting and how war plays out today. What it could do wrong is pretend that women journalists are less capable, less brave, and more vulnerable in war than male journalists.”

From the long line of journalist biopics out there, several stick out, in both good and bad ways, in their portrayal of women and journalists in general.

Joel Schumacher’s 2003 biopic Veronica Guerin stars Cate Blanchett, who displays her own gravitas as the Irish reporter who was murdered by drug dealers in 1996 when she investigated the drug trade in Dublin. Critics from Variety to The New York Times noted a certain lack of oomph and nuance, but supporters of the film called it smartly brisk, especially Blanchett’s portrayal of a modern anti-hero, who happens to be a woman.

Warren Beauty’s 1981 near-epic drama Reds landed him an Oscar for best director, and acting nominations for him, as radical journalist John Reed, and Diane Keaton, as equally radical journalist Louise Bryant. Keaton blended beauty, humor, ambition, and complexity in her portrayal, instead of just playing it safe.

Then there’s Michael Winterbottom’s 2007 biopic A Mighty Heart, starring Angelina Jolie as French journalist Mariane Pearl, the wife of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was kidnapped and then murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002. While the movie fared poorly at the box office, raking in only $18 million in total revenue, according to BoxOfficeMojo.com, and it brought both fans, who called Jolie’s performance delicate, accurate, and powerfully human, as well as detractors, who said Jolie was too big a star to realistically portray Pearl, and that the film itself tried to over dramatize the circumstances.

“Some of the challenges in representing journalists, men and women, on film, is that the work of a journalist is not exciting – the endless digging through documents, the reporting and writing of the story, the entire process of investigating a complicated story, the writing, the editorial questioning and so on. None of this makes for good drama,” noted journalism professor Joe Saltzman, director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC), a project of the Norman Lear Center at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at the University of Southern California.

Saltzman, like Pozner, also maintained that parts of journalists’ lives are overblown and exaggerated, when shown on film.

“Their personal lives are usually wrapped up in their jobs. So minor aspects of their lives – a love interest, parts of the process of being a journalist that are visible and not interior – are emphasized out of proportion to what really happened,” said Saltzman. “For this reason, biographies of journalists are similar to biographies of politicians and celebrities: the film is an exaggerated idea of what their lives were all about. Journalists are no exception.”

Read more:
Movie review: A Mighty Heart (2007)

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