'Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People': Film Review

A lively history lesson with flashes of relevance to present-day journalism.
3/1/2019

Adam Driver narrates Oren Rudavsky's doc about the immigrant who shaped American journalism.

His name is synonymous with best-of-the-best reporting and photojournalism, not to mention excellence in many artistic fields, but Joseph Pulitzer's own story is, entertainingly, far from a portrait of uncomplicated virtue. Summarizing the great strides he made for journalism without ignoring his colorful flaws, Oren Rudavsky's Joseph Pulitzer: Voice of the People is an excellent primer, not just on the man but on the birth of the modern newspaper. Whether we're currently witnessing the newspaper's last gasps or its transition into something new and wonderful, this film solidly captures an essential moment. With Adam Driver as narrator, it may even attract some viewers so young they've never washed newsprint off their hands.

The documentary starts not with Pulitzer's 1847 birth in Hungary but with a visit to author Nicholson Baker, whose enthusiasm tantalizes. Describing Pulitzer as the most thrillingly creative mind in the history of American media, he reports making a purchase, at auction, of a complete archive of the newspaper that made Pulitzer famous: the World, whose creativity will soon dazzle us as well.

Born into political turmoil and a seemingly cursed family, Pulitzer saw a means of escape in America, but not in the way one would expect: He came here to fight our Civil War, taking the place of some rich American who wanted to buy his way out of military duty. After the war he continued to do jobs others didn't want (shoveling coal and burying cholera victims), proving himself to be so industrious he annoyed lazier peers. He settled in St. Louis, falling in with a crowd of politically minded immigrants, and "had a Midas-like touch" with investments. Soon he bought two newspapers and merged them as the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

Pulitzer realized, as the film puts it, that "to do its job, a newspaper had to make enemies." And he understood how to draw maximum attention while doing so. He published the names of tax-dodging elites — lists of in which some names had a shocking "$0" in the column of taxes paid. Never shy about public shaming, he would later start a campaign in which impoverished New Yorkers would collect their pennies to do what the government and the rich wouldn't: build a mammoth pedestal for the Statue of Liberty to stand on.

After marrying strategically, Pulitzer left St. Louis when one of his staffers killed a critic of the paper. He bought the New York World, demonstrated his ambitious vision by removing the "New York" from its masthead and started making himself an indispensible part of the daily conversation.

Rudavsky and co-writer Robert Seidman capture the of-its-time mix of high-mindedness and salesmanship that drove success at the World: The paper's attitude toward news was "not just that you report it, but you also make it" — taking sides in campaigns and crusades, making its righteous, populist editor a very public figure. And the World wasn't just a newspaper. Its pages contained sheet music to popular songs, dress patterns for home seamstresses, colorful cut-outs for children to play with.

We think of our own era as image-saturated, but the World boasted layouts that remain dazzling to our tired eyes — bold, color-splashed compositions with creative hand-lettering and grabby illustrations; visual storytelling that played up the sensational elements of a reporter's account. The film acknowledges the sensationalism we see here, while reminding us of all the useful information Pulitzer was bringing to the readers he seduced.

Keeping track of this career's ironies and stumbles (like the out-and-out invention of stories during the Spanish-American War), the doc eventually shows the personal price paid by Pulitzer and those around him. He remained controversial until the end — winning a Supreme Court battle against Teddy Roosevelt's administration shortly before his death in 1911. Voice of the People is so stuffed with anecdotes and observations that it treats its subject's most famous legacy — those prizes — as an afterthought, ending with a montage of moments in our own era that remind us of journalism's power and potential.

Distributor: First Run Features
Director: Oren Rudavsky
Screenwriters: Robert Seidman, Oren Rudavsky
Producers: Andrea Miller, Robert Seidman, Oren Rudavsky
Director of photography: Wolfgang Held
Editor: Ramon Rivera Moret
Composers: Clare Manchon, Olivier Manchon

85 minutes