Journalism film series looks at the dark side of reporting

‘Ace in the Hole’ examines fake news, ethics, and sensationalism

BRATTLEBORO — The history of journalism hasn't always been honorable. It is littered with the stories of scoundrels willing to do anything for a story - anything at all.

Perhaps the best portrayal of an amoral, anything-for-a-scoop reporter is found in the filmic one-two punch that is Billy Wilder's 1951 Ace in the Hole, starring Kirk Douglas.

The Journalism Film Festival will show this witty yet brutal film at the Latchis Theatre on Sunday, Nov. 19, at 4 p.m. Admission is free, and donations are welcome.

Ace in the Hole was the film Wilder made after his Oscar-winning Sunset Boulevard, and the first one he wrote as well as produced and directed. What he sets out to show is that not every journalist is a hero. Some of them cross the line - and then some - to get a scoop.

Douglas plays Chuck Tatum, a down-on-his-luck big time reporter who has been reduced to writing for a sleepy little paper in Albuquerque, N.M. When he hears about a man trapped alive inside a cavern, he sees a story that could be his ticket back to the big city.

“There's not a soft or sentimental passage [in Ace in the Hole], a portrait of rotten journalism and the public's insatiable appetite for it,” wrote the late film critic Roger Ebert. “Wilder, true to this vision and ahead of his time, made a movie in which the only good men are the victim and his doctor. Instead of blaming the journalist who masterminds a media circus, he is equally hard on sightseers who pay 25 cents admission. Nobody gets off the hook here.”

“The film was a box-office flop when it first came out, but with the passage of time, Ace in the Hole comes off as prophesy,” said Randy Holhut, news editor of The Commons, who will host the screening of the film and lead a discussion afterward. “It is a cautionary tale about news as spectacle, and how easy it is to create it. It is also tightly written and edited, and crackles with energy. Even after more than 65 years, it holds up.

“In our current era of fake news and devalued journalism, we have witnessed so many journalists willing to exchange honesty for access, and many hell-bent-for-ratings television networks willing to employ them. That makes this film especially timely.”

The Journalism Film Festival is a joint production of The Commons, the Brattleboro Reformer, the Brooks Memorial Library, the Friends of Brooks Memorial Library, and the Latchis Theatre.

Subscribe to the newsletter for weekly updates