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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 65.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Page One follows The New York Times into the future
Paper trail
Carr could have wandered in from a 1930s newspaper comedy.
Carr could have wandered in from a 1930s newspaper comedy.

No doubt about it, David Carr is a fascinating guy. The raspy-voiced media columnist is the star and narrator of the documentary Page One: Inside the New York Times, and the film shows lots of vintage Carr action. He interviews sources. He dances. He loads up a beer cooler. He goofs off with his dad. He smokes. He pounds a laptop keyboard so hard that moviegoers in well-equipped cinemas will feel the vibrations in their lumbar region.

And when people dare to criticize The New York Times, he explodes.

I understand director Andrew Rossi's impulse to put Carr at the center of the film. He's very cinematic. He definitely has mastered the tricks of the 21st-century journalism trade, but on screen he's a hardboiled, wisecracking reporter who could have wandered in from a 1930s newspaper comedy.

Unfortunately, Carr's vivid presence muddles a film that's already muddled enough. A short 90 minutes, Page One explores two gigantic subjects: the mighty institution that is The New York Times; and the even mightier institution that is the media business, currently undergoing cataclysmic changes. I don't see how going into so much detail about Carr's quirks, including his past as a drug-addicted criminal, sheds much light on either topic. I guess we have it confirmed for us that media companies, including The New York Times, employ quirky people. I knew that already, but then I work in the media business.

As you might guess from the title, the film is structured around page one of The New York Times. We're told what kind of stories run on it, and why. Film of the page-one meetings is pretty interesting. Editors pitch their stories, and executive editor Bill Keller makes the call. Other footage shot inside the newspaper's gleaming headquarters is likewise engrossing, including wrenching scenes of journalists being laid off.

The film examines the broader media business by focusing in detail on certain page-one articles, stories having to do with the changing industry. A story about Wiki-leaks is an occasion for Times journalists to muse about what journalism even is in the new age, and much of the last part of the film is given over to Carr's explosive Oct. 5, 2010, article about Sam Zell's disastrous takeover of the Tribune Company. Sometimes the film wanders away from The New York Times altogether, as during a segment on Watergate and The Washington Post.

Structuring the film this way means that there is much interesting detail, but the argument, such as it is, zigs and zags. Too bad. My favorite detail is a Gawker headline briefly glimpsed during an interview with that website's founder: "Helen Mirren poses topless, declares allegiance to Lady Gaga."

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