Tragic Circus

What is the price of a good story? That’s the question Ace in the Hole reporter Charles Tatum must ask himself as he navigates what could be the defining event of his career. Fired from numerous newspaper jobs for being a drunk, Tatum takes a job at a New Mexico paper he barely considers worth his time. On the way to cover a drab story on a rattlesnake hunt, he chances upon a front page story waiting for him to write it: a man trapped in a mine said to be home to angry Native American spirits. He endears himself to the miner and his family, quickly establishing a bond of trust, while simultaneous plotting with the town’s sheriff to ensure that the hullabaloo keeps up long enough to benefit them both.

Charles Tatum is another in the long line of slimy, hardened reporters portrayed in film. He does a lot of questionable things: he doesn’t admit to the miner’s family that he’s a reporter for some time after he’s begun covering the story, he lies, he endangers his source and gets too personally attached. There’s none of the impartiality and distance that modern journalism so values. Tatum is out to make money, selling his story to the highest bidder. He’s a quintessential part of the old school, working man’s journalism. He tells his young photographer “I didn’t go to college. I know what makes a good story because before I worked on a paper I sold them on a street corner.”

And, he says, bad news sells. Well, that’s certainly true. Thousands flock to see Leo Minosa’s tragedy. Whole families come, setting up camp near the mine just to be a part of the action, generally getting in the way and being insensitive. It’s not exactly an argument for the importance of news stories. The news coverage adds stress and pomp to a dire situation.

For much of the movie, Tatum seems to be torn between his instincts as a journalist and his humanity. To extend the story’s run for as long as possible, he keeps Minosa underground for days, when he could have been safely extracted in hours. He lies to the doctor, agreeing that Minosa will be out from underground in a day’s span, before turning around and ordering the construction head to find a drill to go through the entire mountain. He encourages the tents and carnival rides and the radio broadcasts painting him in a shining light. He colors outside the lines of truth in almost all his stories, portraying Mrs. Minosa as a fawning, worried spouse and not an opportunist. For most of the movie, he seems firmly committed to the dark side, and he’s dragging his young colleague along with him.

But at the cost of him being heartless and manipulative, he’s getting a great story. Though he certainly is doing a lot of things he’s not supposed to, in some aspects he’s successful. He gets to the story before anyone else, sensing something newsworthy before he even speaks to anyone. He is calm, reassuring; he coaxes the story out of the family of the miner, out of the miner himself. He becomes enmeshed in the miner’s tale, living in his house, spending almost all his time with the story. Minosa calls him his “best friend.” He taps on his typewriter till all hours of the night, working around the clock.

But he only regains his humanity when he stops pursuing the story. When he finally starts to understand what he has done, he can only attempt to limit the damage. He doesn’t return his editor’s phone calls, at the cost of the job he’s worked so hard and burned so many bridges to land. He can’t save Minosa; he can only get him some oxygen, a priest, try to stop the suffering. When he finally dies, Tatum has to go outside and face the crowds of people he drew there. He has to try to provide a solemn moment for the miner in the midst of the balloons and Ferris wheels. The other reporters don’t have time for that: they rush back to their tent to dial their editors and get the story in. In a way, Tatum is irredeemable, but his only chance at being someone we can root for is when he stops trying to be a journalist.

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