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.