Criterion Files #396: The Danger and Darkness of Journalism in ‘Ace in the Hole’

By  · Published on April 27th, 2011

Welcome to the fourth and penultimate installment of Guest Author month at Criterion Files: a month devoted to important classic and contemporary bloggers. This week, Matthew Dessem, who keeps himself quite busy writing his way through every single title in the Criterion Collection at The Criterion Contraption, takes on Billy Wilder’s oft-overlooked masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951). Tune in next week for an analysis of a different title from a new author, and you can take a look at the previous entries from guest contributors here.

We all know the story: deep underground, there’s been a terrible accident. Lives hang in the balance! Time is of the essence! But if everybody pulls together, if we all really believe, there’s a chance we can bring the lost back, blinking, into the sunlight. The important thing – whether we’re talking about Floyd Collins, Kathy Fiscus, or Jessica McClure – is to pay attention. We all know the story – and apparently we love it. The Wikipedia article about last year’s Copiapó Mining Disaster is 10,500 words long. William Shakespeare only rates 6,800. What on earth is going on? In his breathtakingly cynical masterpiece, Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder suggests some answers – but you’re not going to like them.

Sending Our Love Down a Well

The first time we see Kirk Douglas as Chuck Tatum, the brash, hard-nosed reporter at the center of Ace in the Hole, he’s serenely riding through Albuquerque in an open convertible, a vision of power and ease. Except his convertible is being pulled by a tow truck, he’s been fired from the last eleven newspapers he wrote for, and he’s willing to settle for less than a fifth of his old salary to write for the local paper, a rag that, as he puts it, “even for Albuquerque, is pretty Albuquerque.” Tatum wants one thing, and one thing only: a great story to put him back on his feet. And if the film’s opening scene shows us nothing else, it’s that Tatum can bluff and bluster his way into getting what he wants. So when he finds an unfortunate treasure hunter named Leo Minosa trapped underground in a collapsed Native American cliff dwelling, we know exactly what kind of story he’s going to be writing. Even if reality doesn’t cooperate.

There’s no problem with the victim. Leo, amiably portrayed by Richard Benedict, is the next best thing to a blonde toddler: a veteran whose main concern is getting out of the cave in time for his five year anniversary. Add his pious mother and father, struggling to eke out a living selling hamburgers and Navajo rugs, and you’ve got the makings of a Pulitzer. But Leo’s wife, a bottle-blonde as desperate to escape New Mexico as Tatum himself, doesn’t fit the narrative. So in Tatum’s story, she becomes “the grief-stricken wife with a tear-stained face, trying to fight her way into the cave to be at her husband’s side,” even once he starts sleeping with her. The corrupt local sheriff becomes a “tireless public servant who never spares himself.” And most important of all, what should have been a relatively straightforward twelve-hour rescue job becomes – at Tatum’s direction – a complicated seven day drilling operation, to give the story time to build. Too bad for Leo.

Tatum’s edits to reality give us some clues as to why we pay more attention to 33 Chilean miners than, for example, the 120 U.S. soldiers who died in Afghanistan during the same period – or more to the point, the 34 mining related deaths in the United States the year before. In the “Tatum Special” version of the story, there aren’t any villains: everyone he writes about, from Leo on up, is a hero. The only bad guys are, as one of the film’s radio announcers puts is, “stubborn rock and fleeting time.” Well, the battle against “stubborn rock and fleeting time” doesn’t raise many difficult questions. You don’t really have to pick sides in that battle. At one point, Tatum says that his philosophy is that “Bad news sells best, because good news is no news.” Maybe so – but he seems to be interested in a very particular sort of bad news. Bad news in which no one is to blame is the best news of all.

Mr. and Mrs. America

Before the ink is dry on Tatum’s first story about Leo, a car full of tourists arrives, wanting to see the big show for themselves. By the fifth day, Lorraine is telling workers from the “Great S & M Amusement Corp.” where to set up the Ferris Wheel. Like many things in Ace in the Hole, the way Wilder portrays the crowd seems too cynical, until you realize that this really happens. Police estimated the crowd at the Kathy Fiscus rescue attempt at between 5,000 and 10,000, and she was only trapped for one weekend. As Floyd Collins slowly died of starvation in Sand Cave, he had the dubious comfort of knowing that the crowd on the surface could eat at a different concession stand every night. (Heroes, all of them). After Collins died, Victor released a commemorative record. A few years after that, some enterprising young businessman bought the cave, had Collins dug up, and put his body on display for tourists in a glass-topped coffin. It’s easy to say Wilder is condescending, and it’s true that the gawkers in Ace in the Hole are not subtly drawn. But when you compare it to the public record, it quickly becomes apparent that, if anything, Ace in the Hole may not be harsh enough.

The Curse of the Seven Vultures

In 1951, Billy Wilder couldn’t have imagined how Pavlovian journalism would become. There are entire industries devoted to tracking user behavior on the internet, and using it to figure out exactly what the public wants to read about. We’ve got an even more massive industry that uses that data to decide what to write about, and where to send the cameras. If you’re a journalist who believes you might have a responsibility to tell people things they didn’t want to know about – well, you’d better hope you’re Paul Krugman or look into changing professions. I don’t think Wilder could have guessed at how bad things would get, but he was right about the larger problem: there’s no incentive to tell the truth. There are certain kinds of stories the public likes to hear and certain types they don’t. That’s true for fiction as well as journalism: Ace in the Hole was a flop twice over. Paramount buried it. Wilder never made anything else as searing. So much for uncomfortable truths.

They say societies get the media they deserve. Spend a few hours reading David Brooks and you’ll be convinced we must have done something awful. Give them their due, though: the American media is undoubtedly the Greatest Show on Earth, a blustery hullaballoo that’s making some people very rich and keeping everyone else entertained. But as the middle class continues to implode, as the wealthiest take more and more of the pie, as Medicare is dismantled and the casualties pile up and the ocean levels rise, well, as Chuck Tatum might say, keep this in mind, fan.

If the pounding of the drill is louder than the merry-go-round, you’re not at the carnival – you’re in the cave.

When Matthew Dessem isn’t digging in collapsed caves for the best scoop available, he’s busy writing detailed analyses of every single title (that’s right, every single title) in the Criterion Collection at The Criterion Contraption. You can, and should, follow him on twitter @matthewdessem.

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