Ace in the Hole, Billy Wilder’s seminal 1951 film about media manipulation, depicts a world that is both forgotten, and deeply relevant 66 years later. Chuck Tatum (played with the usual highflying intensity by Kirk Douglas) is the kind of ‘newspaper’ man that you don’t find in the newsrooms of 2017. He brags about being fired from 11 newspapers for everything from drinking too much to adultery, then gets a job with the Albuquerque Sun-Bulletin by walking in and telling the editor what a louse he is. Tatum is the kind of hard-nosed newspaperman we’re nostalgic for today – a guy that will do anything he can for a story in a world where events must be sought out by professionals rather than casually seen online. After a year at the Albuquerque paper the story of a lifetime appears in the form of Leo Minosa – a dim witted every man who finds himself trapped in a cave while collecting native artifacts. Tatum’s integrity is tenuous at best and he uses Leo’s misfortune as his golden ticket. He convinces the Sheriff to go the wrong way around in their rescue mission so that Leo’s story will have time to make national headlines. Tatum hopes this will story will make his career and put him in with the top papers. With this act Tatum sensationalizes Leo’s story. He turns it into narrative, something familiar and easy to digest.
Sensationalism is something that has always been valued by media outlets but, as we know, it is endemic today. CNN will begin an hours long broadcast on whatever mass shooting before any information is available – spitting out whatever irrelevant scraps they can muster until the actual facts are known. At which point the facts are irrelevant. People will say that the terror attacks in Quebec were committed by Morrocans even as we understand, based on the known facts, that such a statement makes no sense. Truth is devalued to the point where anyone, especially those in power, can say anything and people will believe it. We see the consequences of this sort of thing every day in that it creates mistrust and, suddenly, the newspapers we used to turn to become valueless forums for opinion. Suddenly anyone can say anything and call it news, or facts, or whatever the hell they want.
Inasmuch as Tatum is a despicable lout – he cannot share a place at the table with the alternative newsmakers of 2017. It many ways he’s just trying to uphold contemporary American values – like telling Leo’s wife Lorraine that she’ll be torn apart by the press if she doesn’t play the doting wife. The fact of the matter is Lorraine is Leo’s wife – it’s her love that’s in question. This is where we see the key difference between Ace in the Hole and contemporary news – People are not given completely false roles. In Ace in the Hole, it is often the ephemeral emotions that are spun rather than actual roles undertaken by the players
As such, Tatum spins the narrative but the basic facts are true & verifiable. Tatum’s involvement simply gives the story longevity. By spinning the reality of the story rather than the basic truth, Ace in the Hole further highlights the differences between what is acceptable now, and what was acceptable then. Not that Tatum’s actions belay integrity – simply that, to completely invent the story, would be unthinkable in this narrative.
One of the things that makes Ace in the Hole remarkable in terms of subject matter is that the consequences of faulty truth are felt by an individual. Tatum realizes, far too late, that he has made a terrible mistake. As the area outside the cave fills with people & carnival music plays it becomes clear that Leo is dying, and it is Tatum’s fault. Tatum scrambles to remedy his error only to find that it is too late. Tatum manipulated the story for his own ends, and had helpers along the way. Much like the “newsmakers” of today, Tatum wants his story to point to something else – to raise him up, and he sacrifices an innocent man’s life to do so. For all his intensity and flamboyant attention to the Leo Minosa story – Tatum fails. His own lack of integrity lands him in a terrible position and it’s a shame that these consequences are not felt more keenly by those who currently use the news as a tool rather than a delivery system.
Ace in the Hole is an extreme example of what happens when news is manipulated but, in 2017, it doesn’t really feel extreme enough. If an innocent man publically died every time someone told a lie and passed it off as fact – we would probably be a lot closer to valuing a truth that is so sorely missed.