Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were 20th century star reporters whose writings served as a conduit between the man of the street and major events of the time. High school graduates, both of Irish extraction, they came to reporting the old way – not with college degrees but as apprentices who made it to the top from the bottom up. Both – but Breslin especially -hailed from impoverished backgrounds that made for a strong connection to the people they were writing for, and often about.
Co-directed by Jonathan Alter, Steve McCarthy and John Block, with commentary from cultural icons including Gloria Steinem, Gay Talese, Tom Wolf and Spike Lee, the film explores the journalism of a bygone era – bold, vibrant and an essential part of American communities. It was a time when ordinary people read newspapers from cover to cover. There were no computers then, and numerous scenes of this fascinating HBO documentary depict Breslin or Hamill pounding away on old-style manual typewriters as they brought vital stories to the attention of their readers.
Though he wrote frequently for tabloid journals, Breslin was proudly left of center (and came up against the police for that very reason). A fierce warrior for racial equality, his writings underscored the racism prevalent in American society, personal and systemic. In 1984, he spoke out against Bernhard Goetz, a white man infamous for shooting four black youths in a subway car because, Goetz said, he feared they were going to rob him. Goetz had advocates and defenders, who praised him for his vigilantism and for standing up to “criminals,” but Breslin argued publicly and insistently what many of Goetz’s supported ignored – that two of the youths had been shot in the back.
Over the years, Breslin also wrote numerous columns critical of Donald Trump. In 1986, when Trump ran a full page ad demanding the death penalty for the Central Park 5 (5 black young men wrongly convicted of the rape of a white female jogger, and ultimately exonerated), Breslin wrote, ” …beware always of the loudmouth taking advantage of the situation and appealing to a crowd’s meanest nature.”
When John Kennedy was shot, Breslin wrote a story from the standpoint of the working man, an African-American, tasked with digging the president’s grave.
Although they were friends, Hamill, unlike Breslin, rose to move in elite circles; for years he dated Shirley MacLaine and for a time was even linked to Jackie Onassis. Hamill was friends with Robert Kennedy and was with him on the podium the night he was assassinated, an event that changed his perspective forever. He never again became friends with his subjects.
But Hamill never lost his common touch. Long before our current media mused on the psychology of Trump voters, Breslin and Hamill addressed the importance of white working class voters. “Any politician who leaves that white man out of the political equation, does so at very large risk,” Hamill wrote in 1969. Years later, on site at the bombing of the Twin Towers on 9/11, Hamill survived to pen a harrowing first-person account of the tragedy.
Between vital footage depicting its subjects and their intersection with major events, the film delves into their personal lives, especially Breslin’s, tragically pre-deceased by his first wife and two daughters. At junctures, the filmmakers include contemporary interviews with the two men, now in their 80s (Breslin has since died), fragile but still articulate chroniclers of a period in our history when journalism was still art.
Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists premiers Monday evening, January 28, 2019 on HBO.
Photo (above) by Paul Schwartzman/ Courtesy of HBO: Jimmy Breslin (center), Wall Street (1950)
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