Whether you view the veteran reporters telling war stories in the documentary “Scandalous: The Untold Story of the National Enquirer” as blameworthy architects of our broken national discourse or merely colorful side players in the timeline of journalism, director Mark Landsman’s caffeinated history offers something to chew on the next time you wonder how America arrived at its current tabloid presidency.
The timing couldn’t be better for a glimpse into the inner workings of a supermarket staple that for decades was emblematic of our obsession with the private lives of celebrities, yet which recently seemed to stand for the exact opposite when the news broke that under publisher David Pecker, the magazine had quashed unflattering stories about his pal Donald Trump — a policy known as “catch and kill” — as a favor-currying, election-influencing move.
But don’t expect a lot of hand-wringing and soul-searching about the paper’s trajectory from Landsman’s interviewees, most of whom predate (or slightly overlap) the recent scandalized reign of AMI (American Media Inc.) president Pecker, although the notion that the Enquirer’s reputation could be tarnished is one of the funnier takeaways from “Scandalous.”
Yes, they were on the O.J. Simpson story like a military campaign, and earned grudging respect from the mainstream press for the scoops they broke, but the blurred lines and corrosive ploys were always there. This was a publication, after all, that specialized in the getting of stories as a rule-breaking, ethically challenged blood sport.
At first, owner Generoso Pope Jr., son of an Italian immigrant publisher and godson of mobster Frank Costello, set the Enquirer apart by churning out a rubbernecking gore rag infamous for crime scene photos. But when he angled for placement in the checkout aisle — a game-changing move — he had to switch up the tone in order to appeal to average housewives: oddities, diets and celebrity gossip.
Staffing up with ex-Fleet Streeters steeped in the British style of cutthroat journalism, Pope created a culture of anything-goes reporting that in some cases made for dazzlingly caper-like scoops — like the story behind the infamous picture of Elvis Presley in his coffin — and in other instances chill the soul, despite the overall rakish tone Landsman is after with his use of kitschy archival clips and music cues, and machine-gun-paced editing.
The terrible story of how Enquirer die-hards Tony Brenna and Larry Haley secured a “confession” of culpability from Cathy Smith in the overdose death of John Belushi, for example, is a nightmarish example that should make every honest reporter want to take a shower after hearing.
Other dirt-gathering details, though, are enjoyably eyebrow-raising, including former Enquirer reporter turned book publisher Judith Regan’s recollection that no movie star was safe from loose-lipped confidantes, and the descriptions of just how extensive the paper’s networks of informants could be.
Landsman is probably a little too enamored of his subject’s juiciness to make “Scandalous” the portrait of fourth-estate corruption it calls out to be. Although a couple of his subjects are filmed shrouded in darkness, others look tanned or smiling or rested, comfortably removed from their years plying the tabloid’s tactics and given plenty of screen time to defend themselves between wild tales. There’s the occasional tsk-tsk voice from a mainstream journalist like Carl Bernstein or Ken Auletta, and one interview with Gigi Goyette, who saw the story of her alleged relationship with Arnold Schwarzenegger bought and spiked by Pecker during the actor’s campaign for California governor.
As pop culture narratives go, “Scandalous” wants to be as colorful and fun as a flip through of the rag itself at the supermarket. But in these truth-challenged times, the jovial tone of “Scandalous” all too often outweighs the judgmental.
Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes
Playing: Starts Nov. 15, Laemmle Royal, West Los Angeles