A testament to the newspapermen of old
It’s a gloomy truth that some of us will see the death of print media in our lifetime; the decline began several years ago. Where we once bought daily newspapers, we now consume our news online or via the relentless 24-hour news cycle on television.
HBO’s Breslin And Hamill: Deadline Artists – a “eulogy for journalism” and a “love letter to the glory days of newspapers”
It is both those things, and more, as penned by reviewers who yearn to have a mere fraction of the writing skill possessed by Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill, “two of the most celebrated newspapermen of the 20th century”.
As journalists, we stand in awe – not only of their incredible and seemingly inexhaustible well of talent, which extended way beyond daily columns, but how they immersed themselves in the news, and often became part of it themselves. That, and the ability to deliver such beautifully expressive copy on deadline. Artists indeed.
For everyone else, this full-length film provides an appreciation of what it was like to be a newspaperman in the olden days.
Rolled up shirtsleeves and dirty hands
And I say “man” on purpose; in those decades it was a profession dominated by men, tough men, take-no-nonsense men who would roll up their shirtsleeves and get their hands dirty. Men who would do whatever it took to get the story.
It was a time when newsrooms clattered with the sound of typewriters, editors chewed on fat cigars and yelled at everyone, and working your way up from copy boy to celebrity columnist was entirely possible. It’s exactly what Breslin did.
He and Hamill came from Irish Catholic working class backgrounds. His alcoholic father, a piano player, acted out the cliché of going out one day to buy rolls and never coming back. Jimmy and his sister were raised through the Great Depression by his high school teacher mother. Breslin dropped out of college, and later won a Pulitzer prize.
Hamill was set on becoming a comic book artist, but life had other plans.
Fame, infamy and everything in between
Over the decades, these two men wrote for opposing publications – including such illustrious titles as New York Daily News and New York Post – as well as together, in vastly different styles. Inevitably, they became close friends.
Breslin was brash and bombastic; he pulled no punches, which often got him into trouble. Readers loved him because he focused on the real people of New York City, the champion of the underdog. He dabbled in politics and kept company with members of the criminal underworld.
Hamill was famous in his own right, having dated Jackie Onassis and Shirley MacLaine. How can you not marvel at these larger than life characters?
Breslin and Hamill had remarkable personal lives, but their careers spanned some of the most significant events of the second half of the 20th Century, upon which they relentlessly reported.
Hamill became friends with Robert Kennedy, and was one of four men who disarmed Sirhan Sirhan of his gun in the aftermath of the assassination of the young senator in 1968.
He was instrumental in persuading Kennedy to run for President, working for the campaign as well as covering it as a journalist. One of Breslin’s best known columns was published the day after John F Kennedy’s funeral and focused on the man who had dug the president’s grave.
He also happened to be the reporter with whom serial killer Son Of Sam initiated correspondence, sending him letters.
If you want to write, write
The film shares excerpts from the men’s writings, which are so elegant, eloquent and exquisite – and not limited to newsprint. Both men wrote several books, fiction and non-fiction, a true testament to the exhortation of every teacher to every student: if you want to write, write. Write everything, every day.
There are those who write because they have something to say, and those who write because they simply cannot not.
Sadly, Breslin is no longer of this earth, having passed away in 2017. Fortunately for us, the documentary was made before then and includes delectable interviews with the man (past and “present”) who was apparently feisty right up till the very end.
He and Hamill share some of the spotlight, which serves to illustrate their deep and abiding bond, as well as their unquestionable love for their lives spent as the most consummate of writers.
An illustrious list of interviewees
Breslin And Hamill: Deadline Artists includes interviews with more than 40 people who knew them or have been touched by them in some way – Tom Wolfe, Gloria Steinem, Robert DeNiro, Spike Lee, Nick Pileggi among them – as well as archival footage of events including the Kennedy assassinations, the Civil Rights movement, the Vietnam war, and the 9/11 attacks.
Michael Rispoli (The Sopranos) gave his voice to columns written by Breslin while Hamill reads his own writing.
This is a superlative piece of filmmaking, and it’s now streaming on Showmax and DStv Now.