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Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists— .
By Elyse Sommer
When I first clicked on Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists I thought this dual biography about these New York newspaper guys might be worth a mention in my next blog. After all, they were once famous enough for their names to be household words.
Yet, given all the timely documentaries available to screen, it seems spending almost two hours watching a documentary about two white guys from a by-gone era of newspaper reportage would appeal strictly to readers old enough for a documentary like this to be a pleasant nostalgia trip.
That said, however, it didn't take long into my catch-up viewing of this double biography, filmed in 2015 and released on HBO three years later, to realize that Breslin and Hamill's story worked on many levels. Directors Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy have indeed created a colorful biography of two at once very similar and different men — similar backgrounds and career paths, but styles different enough to have their columns appear point-counterpoint in the same newspapers. Breslin made those his deadlines with realistic brashness. Hamill was more pensive and literary and actually wrote numerous short stories and novels. What's more, by linking the duo's personal histories to the many major events they covered, the filmmakers cleverly point out that the past is very much the present.
Some particularly telling examples of history repeating itself include replays of Vice President Spiro Agnew covering up his own misdeeds with lies and attacks on the news media as nattering nabobs of discontent. It took Donald Trump to condemn today's truth telling by the media as fake news. Trump's racist mindset is even more tellingly evident in a clip of his comments on Breslin's coverage of subway shooter Bernard Goetz and the trial of the five youths accused of attacking a Central Park jogger.
While Trump and his loyalists have not yet buried truth-telling journalists, more and more print newspapers have indeed disappeared. And so, this isn't just a memoir about two superstars of an era but a eulogy to print newspapers — in Breslin and Hamill's day, as many as nine a day in New York. And not counting borough weeklies.
Sad as this has-been aspect of Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists , it's also enormously entertaining. The fact that neither of these native New Yorkers finished high school didn't stand in the way of their making a place for themselves in the hustle and bustle of the newsroom as immortalized back in 1928 by Charles MacArthur and Ben Hecht's newspaper story, The Front Page. (You can read my review of its last Broadway revival of.here).
Besides filmed interviews with the titular stars (Breslin died in 2017, Hamill in 2020), the documentary is enlivened by the commentary of a large cast of talking heads: Tom Brokaw, Gail Collins, Robert De Niro, Spike Lee, Les Payne, Nick Pileggi, Colin Quinn, Gloria Steinem, Gay Talese, Garry Trudeau, Tom Wolfe, , and family members.
For all their humble beginnings, both Breslin and Hamill were superstars whose non-writing lives were newsworthy— especially Hamill's romantic life which included marriage to Shirley McLaine and a relationship with Jackie Kennedy.
The film received the 2020 Emmy Award for Outstanding Historical Documentary. I'm glad I caught up with it. I think you will be as well.
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Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists
Directed by John Block, Jonathan Alter, Steve McCarthy
Based on Interviews of Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill, and contemporaries
Cinematography Steve McCarthy
Edited by Geof Bartz, Angela Gandini
Music by Wendy Blackstone
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer