Saturday, October 30, 2010

Jagged Edge: Entertaining movie about the world's worst newspaper editor

Police just arrested your handsome local newspaper editor for a double-murder. The DA says the editor - call him Jack - brutally killed his housekeeper, then stabbed his wife to death after tying her up in their own bed. He gave himself a bump on the head to make it look like the work of an intruder, although the injury didn't even cause a concussion. He did it for the money. The wife came from a rich family and the husband - Jack - inherits it all, including the Hearst-like media empire started by her beloved grandfather.

A few months later, the editor is a free man, out on $500,000 bail. In his spare time, he prepares his defense, woos his divorced, mother-of-two attorney, rides white horses while waxing poetically about their beauty and vulnerability, and vomits out sound bites to the local news hounds, all of whom still treat him like Ben Bradlee.

And he continues to serve as editor of the newspaper. And dictates coverage about the DA who's prosecuting him. He lords over editorial meetings, in a massive conference room with a large window that overlooks the printing presses.

That's the plot of Jagged Edge, which I just watched on Netflix. I've seen the Jeff Bridges-Glenn Close movie numerous times. It's a classic thriller, penned by Basic Instinct sreenwriter Joe Eszterhas. In the end (spoiler), Jeff Bridges' character - the passionate, dashing, yet murderous, editor - is found innocent. He has sex with his attorney, talks some more about horses, then tries to kill his lawyer when she discovers he's actually guilty. It's got great twists and solid performances - Bridges, Close, Peter Coyote as the slimy DA, and Robert Loggia, who earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of an investigator who was surely described in the screenplay as "grizzled."

But even though I worked in newspapers for a decade and wanted to be a reporter 10 years before I ever stepped foot in a newsroom I never realized just how preposterous the movie was, especially when it came to portraying a newspaper editor. To recap: Jack Forrester is the editor of a large paper in San Francisco. He's accused of two murders, including his wife, who also happens to be the top executive at the same paper, a woman whose family has operated the paper for decades.

Yet early in the movie, there's a scene where Jack sits in a meeting while an editor talks about a profile the paper will do about the DA, who happens to be running for Senate while also prosecuting Forrester for the murders. The man is still at work. He implores his beleaguered, yet loyal staff to remain objective.

It makes sense that Forrester's a lying, thieving, manipulative murderer who happens to be an editor. Before he became the most famous screenwriter in the world, Eszterhas was a newspaper reporter in Cleveland and then a writer for Rolling Stone magazine. Surely somewhere down the line an editor cut one of Joe's stories down from 3,000 words to 1,000 and Eszterhas vowed to get back at the know-nothing, red-pencil-toting son of a bitch. Maybe one of his old editors sort of looked like Jeff Bridges, or at least like Beau. Whatever the case, Eszterhas turned a newspaper editor into an ultimate villain, a remorseless killing machine with a love of bondage and jagged knives.

It was just a movie. And a good one. But did Forrester stay on staff during the murder trial? No one in upper management, none of his friends, none of his golfing buddies at the club, pulled him aside at the soda machine and said maybe it'd be a good time to take a leave of absence, "you know, until this thing about you slitting your housekeeper's throat and disemboweling your wife at your beach house blows over. We don't want to give our critics too much ammunition." And how did the reporters talk to him about their stories? "Jack, I think you, uh, sliced too much from the heart of the story."

Jack mans the head chair at editorial meetings, dictating city council coverage and weekend features about teachers who volunteer at homeless shelters. Then, during lunch, he retires to play racquetball with his lawyer as they debate a strategy that will keep him out of prison. It'd have been like OJ serving as an analyst on Monday Night Football in the fall of 1994.

A real-life newspaper equivalent? The New York Times editor marries a Sulzberger daughter and is charged with her murder (and kills the housekeeper). The Manhattan DA vows the editor will fry, though not literally in New York state. But the editor stays on, running point during the middle of election season. And no one has an issue with this. This movie makes Fletch look like a realistic portrayal of newspaper life.

I do have one other plot question, but, unfortunately, I have no real-life expertise in this matter. The movie ends with Glenn Close finding the typewriter Bridges used to send her mysterious and creepy notes throughout the trial. This convinces her he's guilty. She storms off, goes back home, cleans up, calls Bridges, tells him she found the typewriter and waits in bed for him to break in to the house. He does, she shoots him and that's it. But what was his motivation for killing her? Didn't double-jeopardy apply? He was acquitted. There was no fraud in the trial, no one bribed a judge or anything, which could be an exception to double-jeopardy, if my readings at Wikipedia Law School are accurate. And the typewriter didn't even necessarily prove he was the murderer. He could have just told her, "Great, you've got the typewriter I used to send creepy notes, what are you going to do?" The DA could not have put him back on trial, right?

Was he worried about losing his girlfriend? He thought he might bump into his attorney at some city functions and be embarrassed by the fact she knows he did what everyone thought he did but no one could prove?

It makes no sense. I think this was one final shot Ezsterhas delivered to his former industry. The famed screenwriter didn't just turn his editor into a heartless sociopath.

He also made him really dumb.


Anonymous said...

solid post, you nailed it ... i think glenn close just wanted to kill him (after an emotional day coppping to the supression of evidence with the guy who hung himself in prison) she essentially becomes rageful (kids are away with dad) and wants blood of her own. she waits because she knows about the double jeopardy and knows that she must do justice on her own, rough justice that is.

Shawn Fury said...

Good point. Someone should make a movie with Close's Fatal Attraction character being a client for her Jagged Edge client.

I still don't understand Jack's motivation. He should have stayed at home with his horses. Let her know he was a murderer. Take the typewriter. He must have at least suspected a strong woman like her might have dreamed up the idea of shooting him as he tries to kill her. Double-jeopardy meant he was free, why kill again? Well, other than the fact he was a blood-thirsty psychopath.