The Paper

(Ron Howard, USA, 1994)


There are many popular movies which are unfairly consigned to the dustbin of ephemeral amusement, as if their power to move or thrill us counted for absolutely nothing within the big picture of daily, social life. The Paper, however, presents a difficult case even for the most committed pop culture enthusiast.

Ron Howard's film, written by David and Stephen Koepp, is excellent in all its parts. Its interweaving of the private crises and workroom deadlines besetting a newspaper's staff – evoking fond memories of both His Girl Friday (1940) and Broadcast News (1987) – is deft and lively. The cast, from Michael Keaton in the lead right down to the smallest cameo, is uniformly excellent. So why does this movie evaporate so quickly from the mind once the end credits roll?

Throughout the '80s, Ron Howard and John Hughes separately perfected a new, highly influential style of mainstream filmmaking. It is a slick, fluid style that alternates between comic whimsy and quasi-tragedy. Their movies touch on painful issues of mortality, breakdown, suffering and despair but quickly skid away towards the next reassuring laugh or platitude. The Paper plays perfectly true to this form.

A radio announcer spells out the conceit of the story in the first and last scenes: "Your whole world can change in 24 hours". Each character races the clock as they grapple with a major lifestyle question. Should Henry (Keaton) swap to another newspaper for less stress and more security? Should his boss Barney (Robert Duvall), suffering from cancer, seek out the adult daughter who has long rejected him? Should Alicia (Glenn Close) stop the presses when Henry uncovers an alarming truth about a police cover-up?

It is disquieting to scan back over the film and tote up its apparently serious concerns. The tricky ethics of tabloid journalism, the hard questions facing women who want both children and a career, the problems of illness and retrenchment confronting the aged: all these issues are eventually evaded in a flurry of neatly intersecting plot lines and an orgy of feel-good vibes.

In the end it is the same old placebo, a strident affirmation that life is a constant flux of birth and death, tears and joy, the light and the dark. Which may be true, but it is hardly a useful or memorable truth.

MORE Howard: EDtv, The Missing, Ransom, Apollo 13

© Adrian Martin January 1995

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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