Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists
Premieres on HBO Monday,
Jan. 28, 8 p.m.
Directed by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy
By GWEN OREL
“Once there was another city here, but now it is gone. There are almost no traces of it anymore, but millions of us know it existed, because we lived in it; the lost city of New York.”
— Pete Hamill
“By now, he measured nothing around him: week, month, day, night, summer heat, fall chill, the color of the sky, the sound of the street, clothes, music, lights, wealth dwindled in meaning.”
— Jimmy Breslin
The reporting of Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill had poetry as well as passion.
“When I ask my students at Montclair State, is there anybody that you read every week, can you give me a name of a person? They don’t have any,” Steve McCarthy said at a joint interview with John Block at Bluestone Coffee Co. in late December.
Jonathan Alter, the third Montclair producer of the film, spoke to Montclair Local by phone.
When McCarthy, news producer in the School of Communication and Media at MSU, was growing up in Brooklyn, he remembers reading Jimmy Breslin every day. And that people bought the paper to see what Pete Hamill had to say about the Crown Heights riots in 1991.
Block, growing up in Chicago, read another “cantankerous journalist,” Mike Royko. “When I moved to New York, I was naturally gravitating towards a Breslin and a Hamill, someone who could give me perspective of the city I was in.”
Alter, who also grew up in Chicago, also cited Royko as an influence. He said he knew Hamill a little in the ’90s when Hamill wrote a book about Frank Sinatra, and was at a book festival with him in Chicago.
“Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” is not a biography of either the late Breslin (1928-2017), who wrote for the New York Daily News, Newsday and others, winning the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary, or of Hamill (1935-), a columnist for the New York Post and the New York Daily News, as well as a novelist.
“We didn’t want to do a tribute to Jimmy Breslin,” Alter said. “We wanted to do a richer, more creative, contextual film about journalism in the second half of the 20th Century.”
In the documentary, Alter points out that sometimes Breslin and Hamill were colleagues at the same paper, sometimes rivals, but always good friends.
“Deadline Artists” is an homage to a kind of muscular, man-on-the-street column writing, that no long exists.
“What have we lost?” was the first question, the organizing principle of the film, Alter said.
In 1988, the Daily News had 400 reporters.
In 2018, the year after Breslin died, it had just 45. The film shows closeups of anguished reporters carrying out boxes of their things as they left the building.
EVERYONE SAID YES
The whole project took three and a half years, McCarthy said. Initially, they filmed on their own, then they sold the project to HBO. They kept shooting, and then there was a year and a half of editing.
The filmmakers had sat down with DOC NYC producer Thom Powers at Bluestone when the project was new and got some advice about it. This autumn the film was a centerpiece of the festival, premiering on the festival’s last day, Nov. 15.
Some of the film was shot at Edgemont Park, and some of the interviews were shot in McCarthy’s living room. Some of the production was done in Montclair.
Cable News personalities such as Rachel Maddow have fans, of course, but it’s a different kind of journalism, McCarthy said. Where a Sean Hannity sits in a studio, Breslin and Hamill would go on a train to the Bronx.
“They walked the walk,” said John Block.
“There’s an expression, ‘third floor left,’ you get to see where the body is, smell the garbage,” McCarthy said.“Both of them went to Vietnam. They were there when R.F.K. was shot.”
Gloria Steinem, Robert De Niro, Spike Lee, Shirley MacLaine, Tom Wolfe, Nick Pileggi, Gail Collins, Andrew Cuomo and Gary Trudeau all appear in the film, which chronicles the careers of Breslin and Hamill from the 60s on. Members of both men’s families also talk about them.
“Everyone we asked to do an interview said yes,” Alter said. “The only person we couldn’t get was David Berkowitz [Son of Sam], who politely declined.”
Berkowitz wrote a letter to Breslin, which became part of the investigation into the serial killings of 1976 and 1977.
Breslin and Hamill also wrote about the Central Park Jogger arrests of five black teenagers in 1989 (Pete Hamill rebuked Donald Trump for his full page ad in the Daily News to “Bring on the Death Penalty”), the AIDS crisis of the 1980s, and the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
The documentary touches on the lives of both men: both from Irish-American families, who became journalists without college degrees. The film also recounts personal triumphs and losses for both men, such as when Hamill was fired and then rehired by New York Post owner Abe Hirschfeld as editor-in-chief, and the loss of Breslin’s wife Rosemary in 1981, and his daughters in 2004 and 2009.
Breslin passed away in the course of the film, as did Tom Wolfe and Les Payne, who speak in the documentary.
As the filmmakers reviewed the footage, Block found himself struck by how these were “journalists who didn’t play to the choir. They often went against the grain.”
Breslin and Hamill weren’t popular in McCarthy’s house: “My father was a cop. And they were tough on cops,” he said. But Breslin and Hamill were both “street guys, who could walk into a New York City firehouse and talk for hours. It was a different kind of reporting.”
It was not anyone’s job to write the script.
That’s because there is no script.
The HBO editor, Geoff Bartz, distilled the material and began to put it together. “In essence, he wrote the first draft,” McCarthy said. “I teach writing scripts. That’s what I teach at Montclair State. I tell them ‘you have to do that.’”
Of course, there is a kind of a script. The voice-overs are primarily the writings themselves. That’s something that Alter is particularly proud of: that he was able to get writing in, without just showing the men typing.
“I wanted the film to be a masterclass of writing, of interest to anybody who’s ever tried to write something.” Putting words on a screen does not always work, and he didn’t want a film about writers to show their lives and not their words.
Hamill read his own writing. Michael Rispoli, an actor who was in “The Sopranos,” who played Tony Soprano’s father, read some excerpts from Breslin’s work.
“There is more of their writing in the film than any other film we’ve ever seen about writers,” Alter said.
The movie is not just a nostalgic lament for the past, McCarthy said.
“Some of my friend’s kids, who saw it at DOC NYC, call me up and say, ‘I live in New York, I didn’t grow up here, I really want to find out what happened.’ I think it will appeal to young journalists,” he said.
“I hope it’s an inspirational film,” said Block.
“Both Jimmy and Pete are white Irish guys. I wasn’t sure it would be of interest to African Americans. It turns out that the film resonates so much in the present.
McCarthy said that what Breslin and Hamill did was really local journalism, he said: “And I hope others will continue to carry the torch.”