'Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation': Film Review

Hot Type 150 Years of the Nation Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Cabin Creek Films

Hot Type 150 Years of the Nation Still - H 2015

This celebratory doc is unlikely to appeal to viewers of Fox News

Oscar winner Barbara Kopple's latest documentary profiles the venerable left-leaning magazine

Print media may be dying, but it certainly seems to be being celebrated at the movies lately. Joining the roster of recent documentaries about The New York Times, The New York Review of Books and Vogue is Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation, two-time Oscar winner Barbara Kopple's (Harlan County U.S.A., American Dream) film about the nation's oldest continuously published weekly magazine. It recently received its world premiere as the closing night film of the Museum of Modern Art's Documentary Fortnight 2015 series.

Commissioned by the magazine to celebrate its 150th anniversary, the film is not exactly critical towards its subject. The filmmaker was given apparently unfettered access to its staff, including 20-year veteran editor Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor emeritus Victor Navasky, and its large roster of editors, reporters and interns. We're privy to their weekly editorial meetings, and several reporters are followed as they pursue their stories.

The film's most interesting and effective conceit is its insightful juxtaposition of the magazine's coverage of recent news stories with its reporting of thematically related past events. A segment devoted to Wisconsin governor Scott Walker's recall election is contrasted with the magazine's attacks on Senator Joe McCarthy. Coverage of the aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti recalls a 1963 article about that country's desperate plight under despotic rule. And the protests over North Carolina's proposed voter suppression laws are interwoven with footage of the Civil Rights protests of the 1960s. Excerpts from the vintage stories are recited by the likes of Sam Waterston and Susan Sarandon—what, you were expecting Chuck Norris or Kelsey Grammer?

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Beginning with a striking montage featuring the magazine's covers over its lengthy history, the documentary recounts its development from its 1865 founding by Republican abolitionists—"We like to forget about the first fifty years because it was enmeshed with the Republican party," one editor waggishly comments—to its veer towards its liberal bent during the heyday of Roosevelt's New Deal. A lengthy list of many of esteemed contributors is displayed, featuring such names as James Baldwin, henry James, Willa Cather, Leon Trotsky, Theodore Dreiser and Martin Luther King, Jr.

Financing has proved a persistent problem, with the magazine relying on a large pool of investors, with a primary benefactor having been Paul Newman. The actor is seen in a video clip in which he amusingly relates the beginnings of his largesse after meeting a persuasive Navasky. With no advertising revenue, it's been forced to resort to such fund-raising tactics as sponsoring cruises in which the editors and columnists are the star attractions.

But that independence from corporate financing has also resulted in such hard-hitting stories as one of the earliest informing about the link between cigarette smoking and cancer, and Ralph Nader's groundbreaking expose of unsafe cars.

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The articulate and photogenic vanden Heuvel is prominently featured throughout. Testimonials about the magazines are delivered by such (naturally) liberal pundits and journalists as Bill Moyers and Rachel Maddow, with the latter gushingly describing it "a lefty North Star."

The film is peppered with amusing moments, such as one editor's complaint that she had to stop hiring the interns as babysitters because "they were always leaving to move to Ramallah or Haiti." A reporter explains his decision to cover the 2012 Republican convention from the magazine's NYC office by pointing out, "It's Tampa, in August, with Republicans." A clip of vanden Heuvel's appearance on The Colbert Report features the comedian's bloviating character labelling the magazine a "liberal rag."

The film concentrates a little heavily on footage featuring the endlessly eager young interns, although their comments, such as one decrying the editorial staff's "monochromatic hue," are often illuminating.

Although conservative viewers will probably find themselves gnashing their teeth throughout, Hot Type: 150 Years of The Nation is a suitably celebratory cinematic portrait of the durable magazine.

Production: Cabin Creek Films
Director: Barbara Kopple
Producers: Barbara Kopple, Suzanne Mitchell
Executive producer: Hamilton Fish
Director of photography: Gary Griffin
Editor: Richard Hankin
Composer: Max Avery Lichtenstein

No rating, 93 min.