It’s no secret that these are dark days for journalists. As more and more writers are sacrificed in the wake of Facebook’s misguided pivot to video — and corporations use the death of newspapers to offset their bottom line — more people are writing about the need for journalistic integrity than ever before. In this context, it’s tempting to frame a film like Joan Micklin Silver’s Between the Lines as a film that was ahead of its time. A more accurate narrative? This was a film that shared harsh truths upon on its initial release in 1977, and things have hardly changed.
The editor of Boston’s Back Bay Mainline describes his paper as the halfway point in his writers’ careers, temporarily sheltering those who are either on their way up or their way down. The latter certainly applies to Harry Lucas (John Heard). As a journalist, Harry made a name for himself covering Vietnam War protests in the ’60s, but these days, he cobbles together halfhearted pitches and coasts on his natural talent as a writer. “We were dangerous then,” he laments during an ill-advised one-night stand. “Sowing the seeds of discontent. Muckraking.” For Harry, the revenue-focused direction of his paper neither inspires nor warrants his best work. He serves as a stand-in for an entire post-war generation, coming off the high of nation-wide protests and struggling to discover what happens next.
Then there are those on the way up. Abbie (Lindsay Crouse), the paper’s photographer, uses her time at the Back Bay Mainline as an opportunity to hone her skills. While Abbie is reluctant to take the next leap in her career — she turns down Harry’s offer to connect her with a gallery in New York City — her passion for photography is for the form itself, not the acclaim that comes with it. Michael (Stephen Collins), on the other hand, is just a few chapters away from unloading the great American novel on an unsuspecting public. When his book finally sells, Michael sheds his connections to the newspaper and immediately plans a grand move to New York City. In an earlier scene, Michael admits to Harry that his first few chapters might try a bit too hard; once the book sells, Harry buys further into his hype with each repeated description of his outline.
The only person who seems at home at the Back Bay Mainline is Max Arloft (Jeff Goldblum), the paper’s music critic and semi-professional grifter. Arloft continually complains about his lack of money, borrowing and begging bills from anyone he can, but there’s a sense throughout Between the Lines that Max might be the only character who is neither coming nor going. He parlays his local fame into speaking engagements at the local university — spouting off pseudo-intellectual nonsense about The Beatles and ‘Blackbird’ to impress coeds while slipping his phone number effortlessly into his lectures — and pawns advance copies of albums at the local record store for a little extra money. Max, one of Goldblum’s earliest, meatiest roles, offers the same distinctive line readings that would make the actor famous, but here they are in service of the character not just the personality of the performer. Max likes having an audience, and his embellishments are his way of positioning himself as the talented local art critic.
Of course, nothing good lasts forever, and it isn’t long before rumors circulate that a media mogul wants to add the Back Bay Mainline to his portfolio. What makes Between the Lines such a timely film even decades later is its depiction of the diminishing space offered journalism in a world of corporate takeovers. Pages of copy are cut to make way for more advertisements; writers are asked to choose between walking out and compromising their integrity. The film makes it clear that the Back Bay Mainline, even in its diminished capacity, still has its finger on the pulse of the Boston community in a way no major newspaper could. When that is gone, something vital goes with it.
But this is not a movie just about the men and their dreams. The film was directed by Silver, a veteran of the independent film scene, and she has plenty to say about the men who jockey for superiority. In positioning Abbie as a talent on the rise — and in focusing on Laura (Gwen Welles), another gifted Back Bay Mainline writer who has been supporting Michael financially as he worked on his novel — Between the Lines also takes on the fragile egos of would-be male geniuses. Days after Michael finally sells his book; he spends an entire party telling strangers why he hopes his publisher would be the difference Laura needs in her writing career. Meanwhile, Harry cannot accept that Abbie’s reluctance to date him has everything to do with his professional insecurities. “You don’t want to write,” she explains as the two fight at a party. “You want to find an excuse not to, and I’ll just be one more thing to blame if you don’t.”
Those looking for the newspaper industry’s answer to Broadcast News will find a welcome film in Between the Lines. The film has countless moments of insight into the struggle of the American journalist, from the staff’s shabby living conditions — the film offers perhaps the most realistic look at big city apartments ever committed to film — to how well-meaning writers navigate the competing interests of truth and financial trendlines. With an all-star cast and some great comedic bits — enjoy watching Goldblum engage in a battle with a local performance artist at the Back Bay Mainline headquarters — Between the Lines is a late addition to the already impressive canon of essential 1970s cinema.
A new 2k restoration of ‘Between the Lines’ will play at the Quad Cinema in New York City from Friday, February 22, to Thursday, February 28, as part of The Goldblum Variations. The UCLA Film & Television Archive will also host a screening of the film in Los Angeles on Saturday, February 23, on the closing night of their Liberating Hollywood program.