The opening or closing night of a film festival can make a statement — about where that festival, or the larger world of film, is headed. Tonight, the Tribeca Film Festival made a striking statement by presenting Liz Garbus’ “The Fourth Estate” as its closing-night selection. Garbus is a reknowned documentary filmmaker (“Searching for Bobby Fischer,” “The Farm: Angola, USA”) whose artistry has only grown with the years, culminating in the luminous, heartbreaking, Oscar-nominated 2015 musical psychodramatic portrait “What Happened, Miss Simone?” But “The Fourth Estate” isn’t, technically speaking, a feature film. It’s the first episode of a four-part documentary series, produced by Showtime (it premieres there on May 27), that takes a close-up look at the inside hustle and bustle of The New York Times as it covers the Trump presidency.
The distinction between a film or TV documentary may, at this point, seem academic. There’s a mountain of nonfiction now produced for the small screen. Almost every year at Sundance, I review first-rate documentaries made to be shown exclusively on HBO. What’s noteworthy about “The Fourth Estate” is that its open-ended, nearly diary-like aesthetic feels quite different from what it might have been as a theatrical feature. So this is the Tribeca Film Festival, in its way, tipping its hat to the rise and meaning of the TV documentary series form.
In the 90-minute installment that was shown tonight, Garbus works in a bustling and omnivorous fly-on-the-wall fashion, moving with brisk chronological energy through the Trump administration’s first 100 days. Events flash by that may now feel like they took place a thousand news cycles ago (the resignation of Michael Flynn; Trump’s first speech to Congress), all filtered through the jaded yet still slightly widened eyes of the Times reporters and editors, who possess a calming technocratic spirit. Collectively, all of them have a decision to make, one that keeps being refined: What are the rules for covering an administration that insists, every day, on breaking the rules?
That’s an extraordinary question, and “The Fourth Estate” answers it not with epic journalistic ruminations but by pinning itself to the nuts and bolts of the news process. This is the opposite of a thesis film; it’s a lively existential you-are-there diary of the pulse of The New York Times. Maybe the other episodes will expand its scope, but I couldn’t help but wish that what we were seeing here had more of a topical-philosophical edge — that it showed us the Times editors wrestling, for example, with the thorny issue of how to deal with Trump’s lies, and hammering out a policy about it.
The Times, during Trump’s first year and a half in office, has been quite pointed — and, at times, heroic — in holding this presidential Pinocchio’s feet (and nose) to the fire. But we don’t see the strategic conversations that went into that dogged ambition. Dean Baquet, the executive editor of the Times, has been in the job for four years, and it’s part of his meticulous no-drama style that he doesn’t come on like the Ben Bradlee of the age of fake news. He believes in the paper’s mission, but in “The Fourth Estate” he’s a very laidback crusader — soft-spoken and process-oriented, intently focused on “the story.”
That may be a good thing. Conditioned, perhaps, by one too many awards-bait newspaper dramas, I watched “The Fourth Estate” eager to see the Times journalists roll up their shirtsleeves, pound the tables, and fight the good fight in reporting on the drama of a new kind of American corruption. The reality looks a lot less sexy — though for news junkies, it can prove to be every bit as fascinating. In the meetings we see, the Times journalists, like their executive editor, go out of their way to avoid drama. The agenda is not to mount on attack on Donald Trump. On the contrary, it’s to sidestep any potential fake food fight, and for the paper to tether itself to the nuts and bolts of reality — or, as it was once referred to (in a Times Sunday Magazine article) by a member of the George W. Bush administration, the “reality-based community.”
There’s a telling moment when Maggie Haberman, the White House correspondent of the Times, interviews Trump on the phone after his first failed attempt to repeal the Affordable Care Act. She asks if it’s a relief for him to have this battle in the rear-view mirror, and he replies, “Yeah, it’s enough already,” which produces a knowing chuckle on her part. Haberman and Trump go back a long way (she covered him at The New York Post), and though he consistently demonizes her as part of “the failing New York Times,” she grasps that the policy battles don’t, in the end, mean that much to Trump; it’s all a game to him. Yet when she characterizes his response, in her story and on CNN, as showing more dignity and restraint than usual, she gets attacked, in tweets from the left, for being a “traitor.” The tweets wash right off her, but the point is that it’s her job, and that of the other Times reporters, to maintain an even keel — to use their brains and reportorial instincts to keep the national conversation in balance.
It’s fun to see the occasional office clash, like one between the Washington bureau and the New York editors over how to interpret Trump’s remarks during his Congressional address. Elisabeth Bumiller, the Washington bureau chief, thinks that the story should focus on his immigration policy, but she’s overruled, and the lead is rewritten from New York at the last minute to play up the larger political battle between Trump and the Washington establishment. In this case, the ruling heads are right (Bumiller’s view is too wonkish). But that tension is part of what gives the sausage of daily news its flavor.
In an odd way, the drama of “The Fourth Estate” lies in its lack of exoticism. The reporters are covering the most reckless and idiosyncratic president in history, but the spirit of the Times is the opposite of reckless; it’s scrupulous and by the book. That spirit dominates even when the stories turn outlandish. A few of them, however, aren’t here. It’s a surprise, watching “The Fourth Estate,” to see that Trump’s travel ban ended up on the cutting-room floor; so did Steve Bannon (except for one shot of him taken through a window of the White House). The story that rises up slowly through the episode — and will anchor the next one — is the Russia/collusion story.
“The Fourth Estate,” like the Times itself, is the temperamental opposite of Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury.” That book — unfairly bashed by the Times, which didn’t want to concede that Wolff had beaten the paper at its own game — allowed you to touch the mercurial intersection of personality and policy in the Trump White House. “The Fourth Estate” stays outside the hot zone. It’s about reporters and editors who (for Garbus’ cameras, as least) take an officious delight in holding their egos in check. They’re there to serve the story, even when they can hardly believe what they’re reporting. Their job, in the age of politics-as-advertising-as-demagoguery-as-entertainment, isn’t to go to war with the Trump administration. It’s to keep digging for truth on the dark side of the lies.