Neely Swanson

“Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People” – Won’t win the prize [MOVIE REVIEW]

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Joseph Pulitzer as painted by John Singer Sargent.

by Neely Swanson

“Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People,” directed by Oren Rudavsky and written by Rudavsky and Robert Seidman, was produced in association with PBS American Masters. One had reason to have high hopes. Pulitzer made a major impact on publishing and is the quintessential immigrant story. My formative years were spent reading the St. Louis Post Dispatch, the first newspaper he bought and the only one still bearing the Pulitzer name.

Alas, the high hopes were dashed fairly early on. In what is a typical, but fairly annoying pattern, scenes filmed to resemble the past – Pulitzer on his yacht; newsboys running on the street, Pulitzer in various activities filmed to look as they might have at the time – fall flat and add nothing to the story. Add to that the dreadful narrative representation of Pulitzer by Liev Schreiber doing what is supposed to be a Hungarian accent and you lose me every time.

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It’s not that Schreiber doesn’t do a credible accent, it’s just that it’s so unnecessary and distracting. I doubt very much that there is a record of what Pulitzer sounded like, but I’m willing to bet he didn’t have much of an accent if he had one at all. Fluent in many languages, it is unlikely that a man with such an ear would have retained a Middle European accent beyond his first few years in this country; he was a perfectionist. His pride and desire for assimilation would have been too great.

A Hungarian Jew who faced anti-Semitism on a regular basis, both in his personal and professional lives, he sought societal acceptance and found a modicum of it by marrying the beautiful Katherine Davis, an Episcopalian from a prominent Washington family. His enormous wealth helped him ignore the continuing slurs. Fortunately, much of the documentary does detail his successes and journalistic prowess and business acumen.

After buying the New York World, he set about eliminating his competition, his brother included. Touting The World as the friend to the working class and enemy of corporate and governmental corruption, his circulation rose and rose. His approach to storytelling was to highlight the sensationalistic nature of his stories and put them in the forefront. As a matter of fact, the term “Yellow Journalism” was created based on a yellow cartoon character featured in his paper.

The Pulitzer-Hearst rivalry as shown in VIM.

His greatest rivalry was with William Randolph Hearst who entered the New York market in hopes of rivaling and besting Pulitzer and proceeded to poach Pulitzer’s best employees. Between the two of them, they brought journalism to previously unheard-of lows. The documentary details their competition well. Pulitzer’s hand in promoting the Spanish American War was only slightly less important than that of Hearst.

What the documentary does not do is explore his personal life and positive legacy. Mentioned in passing, Pulitzer was unhappy with the dilettante personalities of his sons. His wife felt he treated her with disregard despite her efforts to be the perfect wife. She was, after all, his entrée into society and away from his Jewish roots. Making mention that he did not feel his sons were worthy to carry on the newspaper tradition, there is no explanation how and why the Pulitzer family is still actively involved with the St. Louis paper that started him on his way; nor does the film discuss this at all even though it remained part of his holdings.

In his will, Pulitzer left a sizable fortune earmarked for the foundation of the Columbia University School of Journalism; several years later the school established the prize bearing his name. The only mention of this legacy is in a chyron at the end of the film.

The failures of this film must be shared by all. Why this is getting a theatrical release when it’s not even a good example of American Masters remains a mystery. Surely the man who won the quintessential battle for the first amendment deserves better.

Opening Friday March 8 at the Laemmle Music Hall, the Laemmle Pasadena 7, and the Laemmle Town Center 5.

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