Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists
Documentary produced by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy. HBO Canada, Jan. 28, 8 p.m.
When I started journalism school, reporters wearing fedoras were only in the movies, but typewriters were the norm.
Writing was as much a physical as intellectual act. We banged away on deadline on carbon paper, one copy for the editor, one to keep. Corrections were made by pen. The spell checker was an actual dictionary.
That’s pretty much the world populated by Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin, before modern, church-quiet newsrooms.
The two New Yorkers were the outsized, controversial personalities indelibly imprinted in the minds of journalism students as what big city columnists should be. Except the two curmudgeons would probably have scoffed at the idea of someone actually going to school to learn the craft.
HBO’s intense, moving documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists is a reminder of the impact that print once had. It’s a sonnet to the days where one voice and one clanky typewriter could change public policy. It’s both nostalgia trip and civics lesson.
“These guys were superstars, they were the voice of the true New Yorker,” says director Spike Lee in the film.
Breslin and Hamill were the heavyweights of their time, two Irish-American kids who would create a prolific body of work starting in the 1960s, for the New York Post, Newsday, the New York Herald Tribune and the Daily News. They created a literature of breaking news as they chronicled the ebb and flow of one of the world’s great cities.
The two men were unimaginably different. Hamill was a poet, Breslin was a brawler.
“In the early days of journalism you didn’t need an Ivy League degree. You were of the street,” says Hamill.
They reported on the seminal events of their neighbourhood and their time. They were both present at the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. They wrote about the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy. They were there for the most divisive moments in New York history.
Breslin was the first to condemn the Bernhard Goetz “Death Wish” subway shootings, attacking the vigilantism of Goetz at great cost to himself.
Hamill went after Donald Trump for the developer’s full-page newspaper ad calling for the death penalty for five Black teens who were later exonerated in the rape of a Central Park jogger.
“Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough … Hate was just another luxury. And Trump stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans,” wrote Hamill way back in 1989.
Breslin in his typical bluntspeak simply described Trump as “a young builder named Junior with a Big Ego.”
Breslin was everywhere, including TV commercials for beer and Grape-Nuts cereal. And of course, nobody could forget Breslin’s signature column covering the funeral of JFK by interviewing the president’s grave digger. While everybody else was taking dictation, Breslin was knocking on doors.
He was so prominent a personality no one was surprised that Son of Sam serial killer David Berkowitz would write to Breslin before anyone else.
“He’s the only killer I ever knew who knew how to use a semicolon,” said Breslin.
Hamill meanwhile, was the more glamorous of the pair: in an era when ink-stained wretches could have rock star status, he dated former first lady Jackie Kennedy, actress Shirley MacLaine and an actual rock star, Linda Ronstadt.
The slick production, naturally, features a cast of all-star interviews with their fans and readers, including MacLaine, Robert De Niro, Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Lee and Garry Trudeau.
Newspapers today are failing at an alarming rate. As I write this, Gannett, the largest newspaper publisher in the U.S. and the owners of USA Today, just announced massive layoffs in papers across the country. Local news — the type that Breslin and Hamill relentlessly covered — has been the casualty. They never strayed far from their backyard because it was their neighbourhood, too. They knew instinctively that’s what their readers cared about — a lesson that some media companies are still learning.
It’s hard to determine what the cantankerous Breslin (who died in 2017 at the age of 89) thought about the digital age in which story placement and assignments in newspapers are increasingly determined by artificial intelligence and quantitative feedback.
His first scoop as a child was as a witness to his mother’s suicide attempt. He didn’t need an algorithm to figure out what people wanted to read. And his judgment was relentless.
“I was a lonely kid who would get lost in newspapers,” he says. “I had my own handwritten newspaper that I called The Flash. I wrote that my mother tried to kill herself and asked the corner store to put it in the news box. “
Producers also don’t shy away from some of the more controversial moments, including Breslin’s two-week suspension from Newsday in 1990 after making slurs against an Asian-American who criticized him for what she thought was a sexist column.
There is obviously a lot of material here. And producers handed themselves an even more difficult task since it’s hard enough profiling just Breslin or Hamill (now 83 and in failing health). In turn, the movie is also about the history of New York itself, the nature of journalism and, in many ways, the writing process.
In the digital era dominated by Google and Facebook, no one in the business needs to be reminded that, for the third year in a row, “newspaper reporter” is listed as the worst job in North America. But at one point, it pretty much used to be the best. Breslin and Hamill are a poignant reminder.
Tony Wong is the Star’s television critic based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @tonydwong