American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
When the New York Times started to charge for online access to more than 20 articles a month, I signed up. I can't imagine a month when I wouldn't exceed that number. The paper remains, as it has long been, the most essential source of news in this nation. "Page One: Inside the New York Times" sets out to examine its stature in these hard times for print journalism, but ends up with more of the hand-wringing that dominates all such discussions. People who are serious about the news venerate the past, hope for the future, and don't have a clue about the present.
For this documentary, director Andrew Rossi had unlimited access to limited areas within the paper. There is extensive coverage of the staff of the Times' media desk, which covers other media, but the film lacks the skill of that staff in covering the Times. Nor does it eavesdrop on any strategic conversations among Times managers about the bottom line and the hopes for online revenue.
Instead, what happens is what sometimes happens in many stories: A charismatic hero comes along and distracts from the big picture. That man here is David Carr, the paper's raspy-voiced, oracular media reporter. I can think of no greater compliment than that he reminds me of the reporters I held in awe when I first went to work for newspapers. Like Mike Royko, he combines cynicism, idealism and a canny understanding of how things really work. As we watch him meticulously report the story that exposed the lamentable "frat house" management of Sam Zell's Chicago Tribune, we see the reporter as a prosecutor, nailing down an airtight case.
Carr is a survivor, an indicted former crack addict and single parent who remade himself. We also meet Bruce Headlam, his boss on the media desk, and Brian Stelter, who won a job at the Times on the basis of his personal blog. (How many bloggers share the dream of winning that lottery?) We follow them through a year in which they write about new media and old, Carr snorts at the idea of media "brands," and Headlam vets the devastating Carr coverage that would bring about a regime change at the Tribune in a matter of weeks.