'The Pulitzer at 100': Film Review

Courtesy of First Run Features
Casts too wide a net to satisfy.
7/21/2017

Kirk Simon culls through works celebrated by journalism's most famous prize.

A centennial tribute to the most famous award a journalist can win (and a pretty great one for those in other creative fields), Kirk Simon's The Pulitzer at 100 will have to enjoy accolades by association. Far too broad to be deep in any respect, the lightweight documentary benefits from access to plenty of top-shelf interviewees but plays like a back-patting muddle. Small-screen audiences may find it amiable enough not to reach for the remote, but theatrical prospects are slim.

The doc's tiny attention span is especially galling given the eponymous prize's celebration of depth, doggedness and inspiration. It's as if Simon took a couple of promising films and put them in a blender. Reassembled and expanded upon, material here might play quite well in, say, a History as Seen by Pulitzer; The Voices of Pulitzer; or Joseph Pulitzer and the Reinvention of Journalism.

As it is, the only subject that gets enough time to engage us much is actual news reporting. In a few episodes, we sit down with a writer or photographer and hear some of the story behind the story: photographer John Filo recalling how he thought he'd taken the best shot of his life, just minutes before getting the one that won him the award; the team at the New Orleans Times-Picayune describing the first minutes in which they realized what a disaster Katrina was about to be.

But the Pulitzer awards aren't just for newspapers, and Simon is eager to spread the love around. He talks to novelists and poets, composers and playwrights, and wants to share chunks of everyone's work. He brings actors like John Lithgow and Helen Mirren (and, oddly but nicely, Martin Scorsese) to read from celebrated plays and poems. As mellifluous as they are, these excerpts are often too short and orphaned among the other storytelling. Once or twice, when reading dialogue from plays, the lack of context makes an actor's put-on dialect almost snicker-inducing.

From Junot Diaz to Tracy K. Smith to Robert Caro, past awardees talk about what the award means and what it's like to win. But interviewees also speak at length about their work and their methods, presenting Simon with a quandary: How do you pay sufficient attention to this many great artists without appearing to ignore your stated subject?

The doc's answer is to hop madly — and seemingly indiscriminately — from one thing to another, with little biographical scraps about prize founder Joseph Pulitzer thrown in on occasion. One moment we're hearing about Pulitzer's earliest experiences in journalism; the next we're at the Kent State shootings; then watching Natalie Portman read a Jorie Graham poem; then hearing playwright Ayad Akhtar discuss questions of Pakistani-American identity.

Sometimes, Simon lets interviewees raise a topic he has little interest in exploring: Juror Paula Vogel acknowledges how "arbitrary" the selections can be, but we never hear a behind-the-scenes account of a jury's disagreement; we hear a reference to the "Pulitzer Curse" without a single example of a prizewinner thought to have suffered from it. In a century of giving prizes out to some of the world's most talented and determined people, surely there were some actual stories to tell.

Production companies: Marblemen Productions, Simon + Film
Distributor: First Run Features
Director-producer: Kirk Simon
Executive producers: Nikkos Frangos, George T. Lemos
Directors of photography: Buddy Squires, Stephen Kazmierski
Editor: Emily Williams
Composer: Wendy Blackstone

91 minutes

comments powered by Disqus