A gentleman’s story

The Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) finally shows us a journalist we might want to meet in real life. Phil Green is one of the first likeable portrayals of the news industry we’ve seen. He’s upstanding. He’s successful. He’s got a cute kid. He’s even nice to his mother.

Rather than dwelling on the personal failings of Green, the film explores the all-consuming nature of a story. He doesn’t just researching and write – – he lives his topic. He takes a broad topic – anti-Semitism – that’s been written about before, and he makes it his own. Along the way, it becomes a part of him, affecting every part of his life.

Often, journalists are taught to keep a safe distance between them and their subjects. To remain an objective, disembodied voice above the fray. But even the idea for the piece is inspired by feelings. The magazine publisher, John Minify, is angry about anti-Semitism. And although Green’s first attempts at the article are more traditional research-based pieces, it’s not until he makes the story more personal to him that it gets off the ground. In a world when practically every story seems to be already written in some version, already out on the internet for anyone to read, is first person narrative journalism the way to go? No one can scoop you if the story is inherently yours.

But journalism doesn’t seem to be the kind of career you can leave at the office when you clock out. It’s the kind of work that follows you home even when you don’t intend it to. Green finds his decision to pose as Jewish affecting his relationships both at work and with his girlfriend. It places enormous strain on his relationship with Kathy even though it was her initial idea to write the story.  It affects his son at school. It ruins his honeymoon. Is this the cost of a good story?

Was he too involved? Or was he correcting injustice one person at a time? In the end, he gets everything: the girl, the story, the respect, a happy ending for his childhood friend. But that’s how movies work. Would it have been the same in real life? In the end, Gentleman’s Agreement is about using journalism to shine a light on injustice. Nobel. But it’s also about the sacrifices you sometimes have to make for an important story.

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