'Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer': Film Review

Courtesy of Magnolia Pictures/Alamy Stock Photo
Colorful and entertaining, but less critical than it should be.
11/15/2019

Mark Landsman's documentary follows the evolution of a newspaper synonymous with sleaze.

After emphasizing the funky positive in his 2010 music doc Thunder Soul, documentarian Mark Landsman gets waist-deep in dirt for Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer. A look at the infamous paper that emphasizes color over critique, it's a blazingly paced film that entertains and informs, even if many viewers who value journalism will groan as they watch. Simultaneously timely and somewhat less than what our moment requires, it will play best to viewers who don't expect a deep dive into the ethics of subjects who mostly seem proud of their exploits.

Those subjects include quite a lot of people who worked for the tabloid in its heyday (well before Trump enabler David Pecker bought it), all of whom are interviewed in splendid interiors implying that they were very well compensated for what they did. That's thanks to Gene Pope Jr., who owned the paper outright for decades and, in his determination to have the best-selling paper in the country, spent as lavishly as a Conde Nast editor after several martinis.

Pope, whose father ran America's biggest Italian-language newspaper and "pretty much controlled the Italian vote," used a loan from his dad's Mafia-boss pal Frank Costello to buy the New York Enquirer in the 1950s; he quickly revealed his ambitions by renaming it The National Enquirer. Inspired by the sight of a gawking crowd around a car wreck, he first boosted circulation with front-page gore.

That served him well, but could only take him so far. When Americans moved to the suburbs, he had the brilliant idea of placing his paper in supermarket checkout lines. Bloody corpses would hardly be popular there, so he replaced crime stories with an endless supply of junk about psychics, diets, UFOs and celebrities. Pope encouraged his scribes to write for an imaginary reader called Missy Smith, and to keep things light — "fake-ish" feel-good stories in which a "nub of truth" was stretched into fantasy.

Importing veterans from the British tabloid scene, he got reporters who were used to "scurrilous stuff" but had a taste for hard work. "We were not scumbags; we were pretty good journalists," one says here, and you can hear the offscreen howls of disagreement all the way from Beverly Hills. We hear about vast networks of informants, disguises used to sneak into celebrity funerals, reporters who spent weeks buddying up to someone just to trick her into saying exactly the pull quote they need for the cover.

The documentary waits until the 80-minute mark and the Pecker era to use the phrase "catch and kill," but even in the early years, Pope was willing to quash an exposé for his own purposes: Early on, a reporter had a damning story about Bob Hope's casting couch, but was told "I don't think America wants to know this about Bob Hope." The film suggests Pope used this unpublished story as leverage to get years' worth of access to the star.

Blackmail? That word isn't uttered, but reporters coyly kinda-admit to other illegal reporting tricks, and are very explicit about their willingness to pay sources for tips. Though we hear from many critics from legit papers (including Maggie Haberman of The New York Times and The New Yorker's Ken Auletta), the film doesn't really discuss the ethics around checkbook journalism or other sneaky tactics. It's more inclined to admire the industriousness of reporters who'd do whatever it took to get the story.

Though those reporters and editors often display personal charm on camera, their statements can be self-serving; even admissions of remorse often play down the sins involved and the impact they had. Listen to Larry Haley discuss his long years on the Donald Trump beat in the 1980s, when the Enquirer published stories Trump often fed them directly and built his ego into a national brand. Is Haley at all to blame for selling America on a president who cares as little for truth as the Enquirer's UFOs-and-psychics-era headline writers did? With a wordless shrug, he sums up much of the film's moral stance.

Production company: This Is Just a Test
Distributor: Magnolia
Director: Mark Landsman
Director of photography: Michael Marius Pessah
Editors: Ben Daughtrey, Andrea Lewis
Composer: Craig DeLeon

97 minutes