Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists Feels Like a Eulogy for Journalism

The HBO documentary mourns a golden age of oversize personalities and bad behavior.

Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin
Pete Hamill (left) and Jimmy Breslin (HBO)

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a new HBO documentary about two of the most celebrated newspapermen of the 20th century, has the passionate, thunderous, and occasionally weepy tone of a good barroom eulogy. Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill represent, various interviewees attest, the last of their kind: journalists writing for and about the working man, self-educated voices for New York’s disenfranchised, reporters who also sometimes managed to be poets. Together, they embody the sharp thrill of a time when to cover the news was to be a hard-drinking, iconoclastic, ink-and-grease-stained truth teller. As Spike Lee puts it in one moment, “These guys were like superstars.” Later, Tom Brokaw adds that Hamill was “so authentically male.”

Directed by the journalist Jonathan Alter and the documentarians John Block and Steve McCarthy, Deadline Artists often feels as if it’s eulogizing not just Breslin and Hamill (Hamill is still alive and writing; Breslin died in 2017) but also a golden era of journalism itself. Alter told Page Six that he wanted to capture the heart of a time “when print journalists could be swashbuckling figures”—a moment when Breslin could advertise beer in television commercials and appear on Saturday Night Live, and when Hamill could date Jacqueline Kennedy and Shirley MacLaine at the same time. With all the hushed reverence, though, comes a sense that something truly valuable has been lost. “These journalists today go to the elite colleges,” the legendary magazine writer Gay Talese says in one interview. Hamill and Breslin, the movie argues, were “anchored in a place and time,” able to tell stories about underserved communities because they themselves were of the people.

A hagiographic documentary certainly has its place—just ask the Academy, which nominated Betsy West and Julie Cohen’s Ruth Bader Ginsburg movie, RBG, for an Oscar earlier this year. It’s just that Deadline Artists often seems enthralled by a version of the narrative that even Breslin and Hamill question in moments, one in which the emptying-out of traditional newsrooms and the checking of anarchic reportorial habits signal a fatal, irreversible decline.

“There aren’t any more Breslins and Hamills,” an uncredited voice says in the movie. “This was the last expression of great 20th-century muscular American journalism.” Maybe, but it’s hard not to read “muscular” as a euphemism for something else, some ineffably virile quality that both Breslin and Hamill apparently had in abundance. And the sentiment undermines the astonishing reporting being done every day to expose inequality and injustice in America, in a much more challenging economic climate for news.

When it functions as a dual biography, Deadline Artists is a fascinating film. It’s drawn more to the bombastic, outspoken, abrasive Breslin than the ruminative Hamill, but it makes a case for the ways in which both changed newspaper journalism for the better. They each fell into the profession with a simplicity that would make contemporary J-school students weep—Breslin became a copy boy earning 18 dollars a week, while Hamill, after writing persuasive letters to the editor of the New York Post, was personally invited to join the editorial team, after which his first story ran on page 1.

The writers made a name for themselves by seeking out lesser-told stories, Breslin in the bars and back rooms of Queens, and Hamill across America, Europe, and Asia. Breslin’s coverage of John F. Kennedy’s assassination altered the conception of what news writing could be by focusing on the men at the edges of history—the gravedigger at Arlington National Cemetery, the emergency-room doctor who tried in vain to save the 35th president’s life. In 1968, Breslin and Hamill were in the immediate vicinity of Robert F. Kennedy when he was murdered; Hamill summed up the scene by writing, “We knew then that America had struck again.”

Both men inevitably became celebrities, lauded for their tenacity, their commitment (Hamill, while sparring with the new owner of the Post, refused to step down and oversaw proofs from the diner by the office), and their fearlessness. Breslin’s ego seems to inflate rather unappealingly at this point in the film, when he’s shooting commercials for Grape-Nuts and corresponding personally with the Son of Sam killer. Called to ask whether he’s covering a house fire in which two people have died, he imperiously replies, “More must die before Breslin goes.” And, in his ugliest moment, he publicly berates a young, female, Korean American reporter who’s criticized one of his columns for being sexist, unleashing a tirade of racial slurs that gets him suspended for two weeks.

Deadline Artists dutifully includes this stain on Breslin’s biography, even if it subsequently drafts family members and friends to explain it. “I think the suspension probably killed him because I don’t think he had a bigoted bone in his body,” his son says. “Jimmy is an impulsive guy from the streets, and I thought he just made a huge mistake,” Gloria Steinem adds. “[Jimmy] doesn’t like when other people criticize him,” Breslin’s second wife, Ronnie Eldridge, explains. “He was terrible in many ways,” recalls The New York Times’s Gail Collins, “but his sense of sympathy was just amazing.” The filmmakers briefly interview Ji-Yeon Yuh, the woman whom Breslin verbally abused, but they seem more interested in propping up Breslin’s bona fides as a champion of the disenfranchised than in considering, even fleetingly, how the ribald newsroom culture the movie glorifies might also have helped keep a generation of talented reporters on the margins.

Alter, Block, and McCarthy are convincing in their argument that Breslin and Hamill shaped the way news stories are told, inspiring a generation to try to emulate their melding of dogged reporting and writerly craft. Breslin’s coverage of the emerging AIDS crisis in New York when few other reporters dared is held up as yet another example of how he foregrounded people whose plight merited national attention. But the implication underlying Deadline Artists’ swooningly nostalgic portrait of a bygone era—that things were better then—is undercut by one of its subjects. Journalism, Hamill says, is “always being enriched by the new people who come.” It’s a much-needed counterpoint in a film that could use more of them.