The Celebrity Journalists Even a Populist Could Love

A new documentary about Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill has insights for today’s press corps.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists might be the perfect film for today’s generation of aspiring journalists. The documentary, which premiered on HBO Monday night, has a kind of romance that only the young—at least at heart—can fully internalize.

The New York City newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill were both larger-than-life personalities who made journalism seem more glamorous than it normally is. (Hamill dated Jackie Onassis and Shirley MacLaine and hung out with Bob Dylan and Mick Jagger.) The two writers—who bore witness to some of American history’s greatest tragedies and inflection points—lived by an unwritten code that journalism is a public service. That kind of idealism isn’t rare for a budding ink-stained wretch, but Breslin and Hamill’s approach to fulfilling it was: one of Breslin’s most memorable columns was an interview with the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington National Cemetery. This was, as the sportswriter Mike Lupica says in the film, an example of using “the tools of a novelist to tell a news story.”

Directed and produced by John Block, Steve McCarthy, and Washington Monthly contributing editor Jonathan Alter, Deadline Artists laments the decline of the kind of local newsrooms that created the conditions for its heroes to emerge. Throughout the 1960s, Breslin worked for the New York Herald Tribune, Hamill for the New York Post. In 1972, they both joined the staff of the New York Daily News. Each had unique access to national news events; Breslin held down Sirhan Sirhan after he shot Bobby Kennedy in 1968, Hamill rode with Kennedy in the ambulance. Hamill, it turns out, had actually convinced RFK to seek the presidency. “I never became friends with a politician after that,” he says wistfully in the film. But they were each deeply immersed in the city they covered—Breslin was from Queens, Hamill from Brooklyn—and their pieces frequently championed marginal people.

They were populist columnists in both style and substance, writing in a colloquial prose accessible to the masses, and in a spirit of empathy for the downtrodden. Breslin was especially attuned to capturing the cultural zeitgeist through profiling ordinary people, as he did in his 1980 column on the murder of John Lennon. Unlike every other reporter, Breslin wrote about the N.Y.P.D. cops who methodically responded to the scene of the crime.

Breslin and Hamill were also committed to applying pressure to power. In 1989, a hotshot real estate mogul took out a full-page ad in three newspapers to call for the death penalty for the five black and Hispanic men who were wrongly accused of raping a Central Park jogger. Hamill cut to the core of the rich boy from Queens. “Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity,” Donald Trump’s ads were “the epitome of blind negation.” Trump himself, Hamill added, was “standing naked as the spokesman of a tiny minority of Americans who live well-defended lives.”

The documentary is told as historical narrative, with interviews from legendary journalists like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, Hollywood stars like Spike Lee and Robert DeNiro, and the writers’ family and friends. (All of the filming took place between 2015 and 2018.) But the film benefits from expanding its focus from the subjects’ lives to their written words. Passages from their articles appear on the screen throughout the film, with Hamill reading his own work and the writer Michael Rispoli reading Breslin’s.

Deadline Artists may feel like a nostalgic yearning to return to a bygone era, when newspaper columnists were not only vigorous truth-seekers but celebrity artists, even masters of the universe. Its biggest defect is that its protagonists can seem at times like objects of worship rather than subjects of study.

More than anything, though, the film celebrates a certain style of journalism—plucky, insatiable, and unpretentious. Whatever their flaws, Breslin and Hamill were unabashed newspapermen. As the title suggests, they always wrote on deadline, always with a sense of urgency. Given the scale of the crisis of the Trump era, Deadline Artists insists that today’s journalists would be wise to emulate them. They may not be able to date some of the most famous women in the world, but they just might do some good.

Support Nonprofit Journalism

If you enjoyed this article, consider making a donation to help us produce more like it. The Washington Monthly was founded in 1969 to tell the stories of how government really works—and how to make it work better. Fifty years later, the need for incisive analysis and new, progressive policy ideas is clearer than ever. As a nonprofit, we rely on support from readers like you.

Yes, I’ll make a donation

Eric Cortellessa

Eric Cortellessa is the digital editor of the Washington Monthly.