Sundance film review: documentary "Page One"

Tue Jan 25, 2011 5:04pm EST

PARK CITY, Utah (Hollywood Reporter) - Worthwhile viewing but hardly the film its title suggests, "Page One: A Year Inside the New York Times" spends half its time explaining the history of and the current context for the paper's daily operations -- most of which don't make it onto the screen.

Most of the documentary's potential audience is already well-versed in the larger issues here. Still, "Page One" offers a solid enough primer on the current newspaper crisis, vivid enough characters and just enough behind-closed-doors content to give it decent theatrical potential.

Viewers expecting to see how shoe-leather reporting, story editing and art production work in today's digital era will be disappointed; surprisingly, the only department filmmaker Andrew Rossi spends much time with is the recently created Media section.

Fortunately, that section is staffed with engaging characters -- from then-chubby wunderkind Brian Stelter, who got a Times gig based solely on his much-read blog, to sandpaper-voiced David Carr, the former drug addict who has become a leading voice on media news and whose foul-mouthed refusal to take guff from interviewees makes for the film's most entertaining scenes.

Seeing these guys hash out upcoming coverage, back-and-forthing the deeper meanings of a story with their level-headed editor Bruce Headlam, is fascinating. But Rossi too often follows their conversations out on tangents (as when he rehashes the Judith Miller affair) or obsesses over broader issues that apply equally to newspapers around the globe.

Those latter issues are crucial, certainly, and preoccupy every Times staffer every day. But a film promising to take us behind the scenes of the Times for a year should show us more of the rationale behind the paper's big choices instead of viewing them from the remove of reporters who sometimes know as little about them as any other educated observer.

WikiLeaks, for instance: After the Times publishes leaked documents concerning the war in Afghanistan, we witness some fascinating debate around the Media desk about the meaning and impact of the decision. But the doc doesn't have the kind of access to show us that decision as it is happening, or even to get a full blow-by-blow after the fact.

If Carr were making this film, one guesses he wouldn't be satisfied to leave it at that.