A few weeks ago, we posed a question to the Audiences Everywhere staff: What movie best represents your understanding of America and your experience as an American? The current moment is a complicated moment to live in America, and a bit of introspection and cultural self-evaluation seems in order for everyone. So, starting on July 4th and continuing through the entire month, we will be running essay responses to this inquiry in an attempt to understand who we are as a nation. If you’re interested in participating, send your essay or pitch to firstname.lastname@example.org. We continue the series today with Richard Newby’s discussion of Billy Wilder’s Ace in the Hole.
Tell the Truth. The words hang on the wall, embroidered and framed, in offices of the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin where Billy Wilder’s querulous reporter, Chuck Tatum, finds himself seeking employment. Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s first film pulling triple-duty as director, screenwriter, and producer, tackles the ethics of journalism through the lens of film noir. Down the dusty backgrounds of New Mexico, disgraced news reporter Tatum, given fiendish charm by Kirk Douglas, and a junior reporter and photographer, Herbie, find the story of a lifetime. A man, Leo Minosa, has become trapped in a cave-in while collecting American Indian artifacts from sacred grounds at the Mountain of Seven Vultures. From there spirals the tale of Tatum’s manipulation of these events in order to create a media frenzy that sees him in cahoots with the local sheriff up for re-election, an engineer who goes along simply because that’s where the loudest voices carry him, and Lorraine, Leo’s wife, who dreams of celebritism. “I’m your pal,” Tatum tells Leo, as he peers at him from a gap in the fallen rocks, his face partly obscured by shadow. Tatum’s “friendship” and interest is exploitation built on the foundations of the exploitation of American Indians, and that right there is the true story of this country. Prolonging Leo’s suffering and orchestrating a leisurely rescue so that he can grab as many headlines as possible and regain his foothold in the world of journalism, Tatum appeals to mankind’s basest instincts: the allure of prospective tragedy and the propulsion of our own self-interest through the branding of negativity. As folks travel from all over the surrounding area to be a part of the excitement, using the situation to sell their wares and experience their own fame simply by being there, Leo becomes a sideshow attraction, a tourist trap stripped of humanity. All the while, Leo’s parents suffer and pray, pray and suffer so that their son might return to them. But there’s little interest in humans in this human interest story, and the god of this story deals in papers, not prayers.
In Ace in the Hole, all the shadows, moral dilemmas, and cynical sexuality of film noir work their way into the newspaper business with stunning ease, creating a portrait that critics at the time believed stretched credibility and insulted both the values of press and general public. The truth, so it was believed, had slipped from Wilder’s grasp in his efforts to wear so many hats within the film’s production. But perhaps the critical discomfort brought about by Wilder’s film wasn’t because of egregious accusations made about the press, but because he found the veracity in an industry that promises to uphold the truth, but also must have some measured fear of it in order to survive the competition. In Chuck Tatum, Wilder found his enemy of truth, the spirit of sensationalism that rocked the second half of the 20th century and beyond. During the film’s opening scenes, Tatum is often positioned in contrast to the “Tell the Truth” embroidery, and frequently placed in the forefront of it. The suggestion being that Tatum and his ego-driven immorality are the future of journalism, while the notion of “Tell the Truth” resides in the background framed like some antiquity and crafted by outdated practices. Here we are, 66 years removed from Wilder’s film, and yet Ace in the Hole could not be more prescient. In the second decade of the 21st century, amidst the death throes of print journalism where our news isn’t simply delivered by newspapers, but by television, websites, and perhaps most problematic, social media, “Tell the Truth” is more complicated than it ever has been.
During the 2016 news cycle, it was difficult not to think about Ace in the Hole and the responsibility journalists have to tell the truth. While film and politics seemingly exist in separate worlds, and I won’t pretend to be an expert in the latter, I believe the way we write about both is connected to our perception of the world, ourselves, and other people. What we put out is what we get back. As our social and political news reporting becomes more obsessed with exploiting an angle and developing a brand based in ego, our pop culture reporting does the same, and we as individuals become surrounded by it, permeated by it until, unfortunately, it becomes the accepted norm. We’re not just selling newspapers anymore. We’re selling clicks, retweets, and likes within a news cycle driven by social media and increasingly lacking in quality control. Negativity sells, and the louder it is, the more it sells. We exist in an age of extremes, where alt-rights and social justice warriors, though on opposite sides, can be equally damaging to fruitful discussions. An age where our politics have become mingled with the flavor of pop culture, and vice versa, and almost everything is defined as being either the best or worse thing ever. Our media only furthers this issue, especially recently. The problem of bad journalism certainly didn’t start in 2016, but it was perhaps at its ugliest, at least until election fallout in 2017 proved even uglier. I don’t need to tell you where to find the film and pop culture writing that thrives on negativity and click-bait, but its existence has led me to think about its connection to our political journalism and the sensationalism that’s a bit harder to track, if only because of its scale and scope.
According to The Hill, some of the top political news stories of 2016 centered on the FBI’s investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails, the Pulse Massacre in Orlando, the war in Syria, the issue of ‘Fake News,’ police brutality against African Americans, and the election of Trump. There was plenty of honest, non-bias reporting on these issues, but there were also sensationalistic headlines like this one from Breitbart on June 13, 2016, “After the Pulse Club Massacre, It’s Time For Gays to Come Home to the Republican Party.” The article itself is, unsurprisingly, given the source, anti-Muslim and uses the tragedy of one group of people to incite fear and hatred of another group. Dozens more headlines along the same line can be found on their site. While this kind of reporting is opinion-based and operates under the prerogative of conservatism, that doesn’t make its use of tragedy or fear-mongering any less calculated. Breitbart isn’t news in the traditional sense, but it is a platform, like so many spaces on the internet that add to the cacophony of vultures who use news, especially bad news, for their own personal agenda.
In Ace in the Hole, Mr. and Mrs. Federber, along with their sons, are the first spectators to arrive, feigning concern, at the cave collapse. Tatum, beams with pride as he says, “They’re just the beginning. They’re Mr. and Mrs. America.” After the crowd swells, we once again encounter the Federber’s, the picturesque version of the white middle-class, who use a radio interview to boast about being the earliest visitors at the rescue site, a ’50s version of online aggravator “First!” But being first isn’t enough, Mr. Federber also uses his five-minutes of fame to plug his life insurance company, remarking that he sure hopes Leo Minosa bought insurance. His boys stand next to him and their mother, gaily clad in American Indian headdresses. Wilder, perhaps the greatest of our American directors at infusing the darkness of human culpability with humor, doesn’t try to make a point that the Federber’s are cruel people. They are Mr. and Mrs. America after-all, but he doesn’t allow for their penchant fame-driven spectatorship, fear-mongering, or cultural insensitivity passed down to the next generation to go unnoticed. Perhaps because they are people with faces we can see, rather than personalities crafted through text on a screen, they are less sinister than the kind of fear-mongering and cultural insensitivity we can find on Breitbart. But they aren’t so far-removed from the voices that clog up our social media feeds now, the voices that use bad news to deliver hot takes, and sell their own, personal variety of digital spectatorship. As Tatum says, “bad news sells best.” But what’s the cost of that?
It never failed to be alarming that every major news outlet reported, almost gleefully, on every inane thing that came out of Donald Trump’s mouth in 2016. CNN published a list of 20 headlines on August 16th, 2016, that only covered a week of Trump’s campaign trail. As we learned from Tatum, a week of bold headlines is all it takes for a story, an individual, a reporter to gain traction. Trump certainly gained traction, and I can’t help but wonder if our non-stop reporting on everything he did or said, no matter how outrageous, played a large part in that. It should come as no surprise, based on 2016 election coverage, that we currently have a president obsessed with being a celebrity, who still holds rallies, and makes ignorant comments in the masturbatory effort to be news, to be discussed. We, as journalists, bloggers, and social media presences, too frequently make news out of non-news or spin news until it no longer resembles truth all in the efforts of sales and ratings. “If there’s no news, I’ll go out and bite a dog,” Tatum says. We’re biting dogs and we know that we as a people can’t help but come running when we smell blood in the air. People are drawn to train wrecks, they slow down to rubberneck at roadside collisions, and there’s a cynical part of me that think that many people respond positively to the unexpected nature of chaos, where precious lives hang in the balance. Perhaps in our blending of news and entertainment, we dig our own graves. Just because we can report on everything, just because we can deliver an opinion, doesn’t necessarily mean we should. “I don’t make things happen, I just write about them,” Tatum says. There is an avoidance of consequence and responsibility in our reporting. Tatum took what could have been a minor news report that saw Leo saved in half a day’s time and instead turned it into a week-long exploit, balanced precariously on the building, and importantly, uncertain hope of Leo’s survival. And wasn’t that overhanging threat of the 2016 election? Immigration, gun control, medical insurance, and racial issues all hung from the uncertain hope of our survival.
As reported by The Hollywood Reporter at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom Conference in February of 2016, CBS chairman, Les Moonves had this to say about Trump, “It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” Moonves went on to say this about the 2016 election:
[It’s a] circus…Donald’s place in this election is a good thing. Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? The money’s rolling in and this is fun. I’ve never seen anything like this, and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.
And keep going Donald did. Moonves clearly doesn’t see any connection between the responsibility in what we report and what ultimately happens. His statement is eerily close to Tatum’s own statement concerning his payoff, by way of positive publicity, of the corrupt Sheriff Kretzer, up for re-election. “So there’ll be one more crooked sheriff in the world,” Tatum says. “Who cares?” With a crooked sheriff of our own currently running the country, we should care very much about the kind of publicity we give.
The circus analogy Moonves used is key, and we see the effect of greedy driven media frenzy quite literally in Ace in the Hole. Before the film’s release, Paramount changed the film’s title to The Big Carnival. Though Wilder was against the title change, and the film reverted back to its original name in 2007, The Big Carnival is just as apt. After the Federbers, spectators continue to come, becoming “a veritable town of tents, and trucks, and trailers,” and evolving into a mass comparable to the modern day trifecta of readers, viewers, and followers. Opinions are given widely, shared freely and without accuracy. A woman compares her situation to Leo’s by telling a story about how she was once stuck in an elevator for a few minutes. People are selling balloons, ice cream, and hot dogs. A Ferris Wheel is set up, while a folk singer belts out “We’re Coming, Leo” while selling the sheet music for twenty-five cents a copy. A giant sign claims that proceeds go to the Save Leo Fund, an endeavor that has no need for donations. Most of the masses are poor people, evident by their cars, dress, and speech patterns. This is Wilder’s reminder that it’s often the poor people who suffer the most from sensationalistic news reports, who feed into it with votes and dollar bills. To digress slightly, I went to a small, Ohio county fair in September of last year. One of the tents proudly displayed a sign that said “Donate and Help Trump build the Wall.” Visitors to the tent were asked to donate dollar amounts to build the border wall, and they could write their name and the dollar amount they had given on a paper brick and place it on a cardboard wall. The tent was packed, with people giving away their money in the name of a President who had not yet won, in the name of a wall that will never happen, but a wall nevertheless frequently reported as a concrete plan, despite the implausibility of its existence. Take this headline from the Chicago Tribune from just last week: “Construction on Trump’s border wall to begin in September.” The article itself reports about plans to hire firms to build a prototype wall in San Francisco, but the headline is enough to create another attraction at the big carnival, one that wrongly justifies to someone somewhere the idea that the money that changed hands in that tent actually contributed to this.
Business Insider obtained an end of the year memo from Buzzfeed editor-in-chief Ben Smith where he predicted that in 2017 “fake news will become more sophisticated, and fake, ambiguous and spun-up stories will spread widely.” Ace in the Hole taps into its own bit of sophisticated fake news with Tatum’s story of weeping widow Lorraine Minosa, played dead-eyed poutiness by Jan Sterling. Lorraine, with her platinum blonde dyed hair and sullen longing for a life outside of her husband’s gas station and curio stop. Despite the tears that Tatum prompts from her for the sake of his story, Lorraine hates her husband. She doesn’t hate him for any of the reasons we typically find in these noir stories. He isn’t abusive or an alcoholic or an adulterer (aspects that each define Tatum), but he’s poor and lacks prospects. Leo’s entrapment in the cave is Lorraine’s chance at freedom. But Tatum doesn’t let her run because he knows there’s more sales to be by crafting a tale of lovers separated by tragedy, on the week of their fifth anniversary no-less. Lorraine may seem like the femme fatale of this film noir, but she is Wilder’s comment on unremarkability, and how sad, lonely people are roped into sensationalism so that they may flirt with remarkability. Lorraine’s manipulation of the story and her romance with Leo only exists through Tatum’s own manipulation, after-all fake news’ initial purpose at the time the phrase was coined was to make individuals into something they are not. Now it’s being used by the President himself to attack the verifiable news and our very notions of Tell the Truth. Lorraine is another casualty of Tatum’s fake news cycle, while the real femme fatale, and the thing that undoes all of the film’s key players is the story itself and how reporters, rescue engineers, and the local sheriff lust after it.
As with any story based in sensationalism or fake news, there is the voice of reason. Mr. Cusack, a miner, goes on record to say that if the engineers built support walls, instead of drilling straight down from the top of the mountain as Tatum suggested, that Leo could be saved within the day. Tatum quickly shuts down Cusack’s assessment as the crowd joins him. There’s a cult-minded fervor in the refusal to see things logically, the spirit of sensationalism and negative energy directed at dissenting voices has grown too big. We witness these dismissals of logic and sensibility daily within the brackets of social media and comment sections, if not within our real world spaces. Backed by Tatum, the lead engineer, and the corrupt sheriff, the spectators feel that they have the news, science, and the law on their side and become blind to lies each one is telling. It’s only when Leo dies of pneumonia, with the drill 10 feet away from him, that the mania fades away. Tatum, fatally stabbed by Lorraine after choking her in an effort to maintain his story, stands on top of the Mountain of Seven Vultures, and shouts down, “Now go on home, all of ya! The circus is over!” The spectators depart as quickly as they came until there’s no one left on the what had been a carnival grounds except for Leo’s father, left to wander aimlessly without a single person there to offer consolation. The spectators were never interested in Leo, only the hype around his poor situation, the hype through which they could promote themselves and grab onto coattails of minor history. There are times when it becomes all too easy to doubt the sincerity of concern, of anger, and wokeness (“I’m your pal”) when it is being peddled, quite obviously by those looking to build a brand primarily based in self-interest and self-preservation in a world where anyone can make news. From Twitter accounts who operate on the basis of everything being offensive, to news programs who refuse to acknowledge when a lie is a lie, to a popular sketch comedy show that hosted Trump during the election but simultaneously mocked his failings, the truth is becoming more and more like the straw man of our times.
Before the film’s tragic climax, Tatum is paid a visit by his editor-in-chief, Jacob Q. Boot, a man so honest he wears both a belt and suspenders. After being chastised for how the situation is being handled and accused of “phony, below the belt journalism,” Tatum responds, “You’re out of date.” There could not be a more cutting blow to Boot’s integrity or the integrity of journalism. But there is, seemingly, hope for journalism yet, as Boot zeroes in on his youngest reporter. Herbie, who has become enraptured by Tatum’s frame filling presence, is perhaps Boot’s last hope. Herbie is the rope to the future that the Boot and Tatum find themselves playing tug-o-war over. “Look at the kid, he wants to get going. Going!” Tatum says. “Going where?” Boot replies. Even though Herbie returns to his desk at the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin by the film’s end, and managed to stand on the outskirts of Tatum’s literal and moral descent, there’s no doubt that the man made an impact on him. Like the Federber boys in the American Indian headdresses, Wilder’s use of Herbie isn’t a statement of innocence but a statement on how the younger generation adopts and furthers the practices we popularize. While another filmmaker would have ensured no cynicism could be found in the film’s ending by having Herbie tell Mr. Boot what he learned from his experience and the right path he now knows, Wilder does no such thing. With Tatum, bleeding out, and draped over his shoulders, Herbie enters the office carrying the literal and figurative baggage of Tatum. Tatum pushes him into his chair, “There’s your desk. Now go to work,” he says in the moments before his showy death. We’ve been at work for 66 years since, shaped the decades with the things we choose to publish and share, with the names and brands we’ve made for ourselves. There’s a lot of good in there, but in 2017 there’s too many Leo Minosas dying under the rubble, too many sacred spaces left disturbed, and too much of Tatum’s spirit of sensationalism and gleeful pessimism driving us forward. We, like Boot, should wonder where we’re going and what the truth will be when we get there.
Featured Image: Paramount Pictures