Long gone are the days of All the President’s Men. Now, in the internet era, a documentary about an investigative journalist will most likely consist of endless footage showing someone staring at a computer screen while surfing the internet. That, fortunately, is not the case with Ena and Ines Talakic’s doc about famed journalist/author Edward Jay Epstein, receiving its world premiere at the New York Film Festival. That its 81-year-old subject is so determinedly old-school in his shoe-leather approach is what makes Hall of Mirrors such fascinating viewing.
Epstein has been pursuing his vocation for a very long time. His first book, 1966’s Inquest: The Warren Commission and the Establishment of Truth, a groundbreaking account of the investigation into the JFK assassination, was originally written as a graduate thesis. Since then he’s written 18 books in all, his most recent being How America Lost Its Secrets: Snowden, the Man and the Theft, which speculates that its subject was less a heroic whistleblower than a spy or dupe of the Russian government.
Epstein’s research on Snowden took place over the course of three years, a period the sibling filmmakers documented in this debut effort that they directed, photographed and edited (Ines, a trained musician, even performed the Debussy music heard on the soundtrack). Epstein’s wide-ranging investigation makes the film a virtual travelogue as it follows him as he retraces Snowden’s journey to far-flung locales including Honolulu, Hong Kong and Moscow. The doc captures the infectious delight that the journalist takes in the process. What he found contrasts sharply with Oliver Stone’s hagiographic vision in Snowden. But it wasn’t the first time that Epstein and the filmmaker have been at odds, as the documentary’s segment dealing with Stone’s factually spurious 1991 film JFK indicates.
Along the way, Hall of Mirrors delivers an account of Epstein’s career which includes his ill-fated early attempt at film producing with a big-budget adaptation of The Iliad, its script written by Mario Puzo. It was never completed but the documentary includes amusing footage of a battle scene from the film, shot on location and featuring Greek soldiers as extras. The film deals with, among other topics: Epstein’s 1973 book News From Nowhere, a prescient critique of television news broadcasts; billionaire Armand Hammer, the subject of his 1996 book Dossier; the diamond industry, which Epstein wrote about in the 1992 The Rise and Fall of Diamonds: The Shattering of a Brilliant Illusion; and Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former French politician whose career ended in scandal. Epstein, who wrote about the affair for The New York Review of Books, was the journalist who uncovered the surveillance tape that sealed Strauss-Kahn’s fate.
There are times in which the documentary feels diffuse and unfocused, not surprising considering the scope of its subject’s decades-long journalistic output. And some of the footage seems extraneous, such as when we see Epstein purchasing a custom-made suit from Snowden’s Hong Kong tailor (the tailor asks Epstein to say hello for him). But those are small quibbles about a film that makes for a fascinating primer about old-fashioned investigative journalism and biographical portrait of its endlessly engaging central figure.
Directors-directors of photography-editors: Ines Talakic, Ena Talakic
Composers: Ari Mastoras, Tino Zolfo, Ines Talakic
Venue: New York Film Festival