'The Paper,' Being A Workaholic, And The Importance Of Small Choices
Originally written in 2020 on a previous version of this site.
Ron Howard’s The Paper is a fairytale of days gone by when the frenzy of being up to date on every minuscule development fell to a select few who distilled it all for mass consumption in daily increments. The world would occur during normal-ish business hours, they would witness it, report on what happened, and add context. And then they’d do it all over again, confident that everyone — from the newsmakers to their daily readers — would play their role in the process. It was as if the world ran on tracks with a schedule and a balance to maintain. And now the future is here and it feels like flying cars are smashing into each other everywhere, always. We’re captivated by the flames and the bent metal and the blood and the screams. Mad from a lack of rest, reflection, and the notion that if we look away we’ll miss the unmissable and fall out of the conversation and relevancy. Everything is deluxe and catastrophic now. And by extension, everything is nothing now with things that would stun moving passed us so quickly that it feels like we’re in a dream. Or a nightmare.
This article about The Paper is not a eulogy for the zombified and soul-gutted state of the news and how we receive it. I’m just framing the lost quaint world that serves as a stage for what is a still-relevant tale about our relationship to work and each other. One that hits me square in the chest after showing the film — one of my personal favorites — to my wife, Michella, for the first time.
As Henry Hackett, Michael Keaton brings electricity, intensity, and playfulness to the role. Henry goes non-stop as the metro editor of the fictional New York Sun, which is described as a “cute” paper by the editor of a New York Times analog (played by Spalding Gray — everyone is in this movie). The Sun is a tabloid, akin to the New York Daily News and New York Post — the kind of journalism that used to fit the model of quick and dirty, and a little smug. You know the type. We’re all swimming in it now. I grew up on these newspapers. I read them back to front every morning from my 10th year to my 27th when I got laid off from my job, got sick, and receded into a more digital existence that I still occupy for work and information. To be honest, I miss the ritual of those mornings on a school bus, in a car, on a train, or in a breakroom. A bagel, Mike Lupica, ink smudged fingers, and the feeling of fullness you got when you read a paper. Like, you knew things were continuing to spin and develop, but you didn’t feel a constant need to dig and refresh. Everything in the world wasn’t happening to you. I should point out, there will be tangents. Again, this is not a eulogy for the news circa 1994… but it might feel like it at times.
Henry is in the midst of a particularly eventful 24 hours. A period that, as his wife, Marty (Marissa Tomei) warns, could change their life for the better or worse. In that moment, Marty is talking about Henry’s big job interview with The Sentinel, something that represents hope for a more stable life of 9 to 5 bean-counting that Henry detests but which he’s pursuing with the idea that he needs to be a grown-up and be there for the child he and Marty are imminently expecting.
As Marty, Tomei is pitch-perfect. She’s on maternity leave from her own job as a reporter at The Sun and highly stressed about the idea that she might become irrelevant or a footnote in Henry’s life. She sees a future with her individuality and identity fading as she becomes nothing more than a wife and mother. This holds no appeal to her and yet feels inescapable throughout the day as she brunches with a super bitter friend (Catherine O’Hara, again, everyone is in this movie) and struggles to get Henry’s focus or commitment to make the same level of sacrifice that she’s making. But Marty also gets it. She’s afflicted with the same drive that Henry has. When he’s working on a story, she’s more than happy to flex her investigative reporter muscles for the cause despite being 8 1/2 months pregnant. More than happy to get a small taste of the rush. But for her, it’s a more controlled addiction. Not because she wants it to be, but because she feels like she needs it to be.
Henry and Marty’s relationship is handled with nuance. No one is a hero, a villain, or a victim, per se (though, I may be biased slightly for reasons I’m slowly working toward). The film, even 26 years later, feels grounded and relatable. A tug of war between love, obsession, ambition, obligation, have to, and want to. You feel for both halves of this relationship. You root for them to figure it out but you’re not sure what happiness is for each of them. At least not in a way that achieves any real balance for both as individuals and as a whole.
The world of the newsroom at The Sun is no more settled or simple than Henry’s personal life. It’s loud, hectic, and filled with people that posses a driving need to unload their inane problems on Henry’s doorstep. Often at the same time and often as Henry is desperate to dispatch them so he can focus on his own swirl of troubles. At one point, during a newsroom scene, I turned to my wife and said, “God, I wish could experience that.” A digital newsroom by way of a Slack channel doesn’t quite compare.
With his interview at The Sentinel hours away, Henry is feeling the pressure to not mess up so that he and Marty can step into a more calm and stable future together with their child. He’s also observing the conveniently stark examples of both roads that he could take.
Bernie, played by Robert Duvall, is a crusted over veteran newspaperman and editor. A general, respected and warmly regarded by his troops after spending decades in the game. But there is, of course, a cost; a long list of regrets that are more top of mind than usual as he deals with a health scare. As Bernie points out when Henry seeks his advice, he’s got two ex-wives and an estranged daughter who, unbeknownst to him, went off and had herself a life while he was holding court with his reporters being absorbed by the day to day of his job.
On the other side, Alicia, played by Glenn Close, is a reviled middle manager who shed her journalistic integrity to fixate on the bottom line and keep everyone on task. It’s a thankless job but one that she approaches with zeel owing to her ambition to keep climbing the ladder and earn enough to finance the status she’s chasing. Neither of these end results seem appealing, by the way. Both feel like a nightmare of what Henry’s life might become (same as Catherine O’Hara’s character provides a similarly scary glimpse at a possible future for Marty). But it’s clear from his actions (blowing his Sentinel interview to steal some intel off of their editor’s desk) that he’d much prefer to turn out like Bernie. He’d just figure out a way to game the system and have both a family life and the ability to approach his job with the same unrelenting, obsessive, and unhealthy level of speed and devotion as he always has. It’s that simple. Because it always is.
As I mentioned, I work around a digital newsroom/Slack channel. Occasionally, I write, but it’s more often interviews or planned out features — things I can construct at my own pace and outside of my work on the business side of things. I enjoy that work, the challenge of it, and the aspect of helping a media company keep the lights on and build. I am also good at it. And being good at something you never thought you would have to be good at makes it easy to enjoy doing that thing.
Mostly, I write at night. Anytime after 6 but often quite late. It’s quiet then. There are no Slack pings or emails to address. I can focus. But it comes at a cost that I’m tremendous at ignoring. I should point out that no one mandates that I do this or even that I write. It’s my choice. It’s my identity and what I’ve wanted to do since I was that kid with the smudgy ink-covered fingers.
It’s her look, accepting but wistful. She doesn’t want to stop me, she just wants me to stop myself every once in awhile. I see her eyes and I feel the pull of staying in bed and not going to my office or sitting on the couch to write or watch a movie that I can maybe write about. I wonder how many times I don’t see them. The times she looks over and I’m head down on something or looking at Twitter or reading something. Those times when she doesn’t need anything specific from me, just a connection and to feel like I’m really there. But I’m not. She knows how much writing means to me. How I’d feel incomplete without it. But right now I’m a little worried that I haven’t done a great job of communicating to her how much she means to me and how utterly incomplete I’d be without her. How there’s no comparing writing to her. How she wins in a one to one contest. But even if I said that more, I don’t know that it would do the trick.
Should I write less? I’ve got ambitions to do things like write a book. How does that fit into the equation? I don’t know if I should bury my phone, laptop, and tablet under a rock when I’m not working. Should I just accept that I’ve become a workaholic? This thing I saw my father weep over becoming when I was a teenager. This thing I swore I’d never be when I was working mindless service jobs, well before I knew I might someday get the chance to actually do something cool and fun and challenging. Maybe I can steer clear of the consequences? Am I at least a functioning workaholic? I don’t have ready answers to these questions. Some of them aren’t for me to answer.
So… The Paper. In the third act, Henry pushes beyond the bounds of the ticking clock and his boss’ (Alica) edict that he run a story he knows is false to save a few (thousand) bucks. He puts everything on the line to exonerate two innocent teens who have been accused of a murder that could start a race war. But in reality, it’s not really about those teenagers or the larger story. It’s about him proving his worth as a newspaperman and that there is a righteousness to the work and his decision to stay in a job that might just harm his relationship. I’m not saying Henry is conscious of this, but it feels like the reality of his actions.
Marty, on the other hand, seems utterly terrified that her husband is showing, more and more, that he can’t grow with her or live up to his responsibilities as it pertains to their family and future. There’s a great scene when everything comes to a head. Henry’s parents are sat in a restaurant, he’s been late to meet them and Marty, he’s still running trying to get the right story filed, and McDougal, Randy Quaid’s disheveled and wild columnist character, is speeding down the street in a vintage car to pick him up. Henry has just told Marty that he blew The Sentinel interview and their easiest chance at a break in the chaos that might allow him to be a real partner to her. Tomei is brilliant here, shell shocked and yet unsurprised by the selfishness and compulsion. Keaton is wide-eyed, like a kid who just confessed to doing something wrong without quite grasping the enormity of it. He can’t see it or her, not because he doesn’t want to, but because she’s obscured by how much he loves to do this thing and how much easier it is to take her for granted. The news is gone in an instant, after all, and she’ll always be there, right?
Amidst all of this, Marty makes a loud and profound point. What would Henry do if someone burst into their apartment and put a gun to her head, telling him they’d kill her or blow up the building that houses the paper. His choice. Which one goes? Henry explodes at the ridiculousness of the question, but the point is that life is not a series of big all or nothing choices like that, it’s microtransactions that can push us toward or away from the people in our lives that we love. People we’d never consciously hurt through inattention or selfishness, but who our behavior can often punish as a side effect of how we live and try to juggle our priorities.
After getting hit in the chest with Marty’s observation, Henry hops in the car with McDougal to go save the reputation of two kids, The Sun, and deliver an epic fuck you to the establishment. Marty goes back inside. A few hours later, she suffers a near miscarriage.
In the light of the morning after, Henry goes to Marty’s hospital room. She shows him the day’s paper with the right story in place. It’s inexplicable to Henry after all he endured between then and the last time he had seen his wife in front of that restaurant — a fight with Alicia, getting fired, and planting a seed of doubt in her head about what she was doing by killing the story. Henry looks at the copy of The Sun with pride, Marty looks at him with forgiveness, he tosses the paper aside, and all seems right. Almost losing her and seeing his son for the first time fixed Henry and his and Marty’s relationship, causing him to reorder his priorities. But I’m inclined to look beyond the obvious.
Yes, when the alarm clock goes off, Henry briefly rises to make us think he’s going right back to work before laying back down and holding Marty. But what happens the next day and the day after that?
The idea that these characters might not be fully settled holds appeal to me. Big happy endings and full-on resolutions, when earned, do the same thing to me that they do to you, but they’re doled out at a level that is frustratingly off-balance with reality. Minor bits of progress feel more right and, in a way, affirming because it’s often the only kind of progress that’s truly in reach in the marathon that is our own stories.
My final verdict is that Henry and Marty are okay, for now, but he still has work to do and a reason to hang on to the lessons learned on this day that absolutely changed their lives. He has choices to make. Every single day. Because, to go back to what Marty said, life is about how you prioritize and handle those little moments that constantly present themselves to you.
As for me and my workaholic nature, I don’t know. This rewatch of The Paper has me thinking. Writing this was a part of processing that. On the other hand, to do this, I got up, went to my office, and spent two hours on a Saturday writing almost 3,000 words for my own vanity website because I really, really wanted to. All while my wife sat and went through photo albums, putting things aside for me to look at someday when I have the time. Maybe typing this all out makes it easier for me to “see” myself and the decisions I make, I don’t know. Again, it’s about finding a balance. I probably should have done a better job this time, but maybe realizing that helps me do better next time.