New HBO documentary highlights legacy of legendary duo
“The job of the press is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”
—American humorist Finley Peter Dunne
While Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill may not have uttered these words out loud, it’s a mantra that defined the work the duo did as reporters throughout the roughly five decades the two were churning out columns for the New York Herald Tribune, the Daily News, Newsday and the New York Post. It’s world perfectly captured in the documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a film directed and produced by journalists/filmmakers Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy.
Clocking in at nearly two hours, the film draws from a large number of colleagues, family and friends weighing in on the impact the twosome had, along with the subjects themselves. Among those tapped for their insight were Les Payne, Gloria Steinem, Earl Caldwell, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Garry Trudeau, Robert De Niro, Shirley MacLaine, Mike Lupica, Spike Lee, Gail Collins, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Colin Quinn. It was quite a surprising response Alter had when he received word back from one of Breslin’s stepchildren that the veteran scribe was ailing.
“In the early summer of 2015, I heard from Jimmy Breslin’s step-daughter that he wasn’t doing too well. It struck me that the timing was good and important to just go over and try to get as many of his memories and reactions to things on tape as possible. I had two friends and former NBC news colleagues [ed. note: John Block and Steve McCarthy], who also live in Montclair, NJ. We just went over to Jimmy’s apartment and we brought Pete [Hamill] over because we thought it would make it more interesting if we had him there as well,” he explained. “We had no idea if there would be a movie or if they would let us come back again, so we just started shooting in the summer of 2015, going over and spending time with the two of them. Then we started talking to some big-time people we knew or knew of. It turns out that everyone was willing to talk about Jimmy and Pete. Nobody turned us down except for assassins—David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam, and Sirhan Sirhan and Bernard Goetz.”
Utilizing an enormous amount of archival material, the filmmakers not only highlighted the significant events both men covered extensively—the JFK and RFK assasinations (both were on-site for the latter when it happened), the Vietnam War, the Son of Sam slayings, the Goetz subway shooting, the false rape accusation of the Central Park Five, 9/11—but dove extensively into their origins and personal lives. To their credit, Alter and company also shared lesser lights, such as Breslin being accused of racial slander by co-worker Ji-Yeon Yuh or Hamill’s struggles with alcoholism until he quit back in 1972. With so much content to work with, the balanced presentation in the end product was a result of hard decisions made in the editing process.
“We had such an embarrassment of riches in the material that figuring out what to use and what to leave on the cutting room floor was extremely difficult. There are a lot of people whose favorite Jimmy Breslin story won’t be in there. Because he really liked going on TV, there was a large amount of archival material,” Alter said. “It was very difficult weaving it together because it was really five movies in one—it was a movie about Jimmy Breslin, it was a movie about Pete Hamill, it was a movie about race and class in New York, it was about American journalism and finally it was a movie about writing. The [issue] of doing justice to all of those scenes and also making it entertaining and flow was a significant challenge.”
With both Breslin and Hamill coming from humble backgrounds (the former from Jamaica, Queens and the later born in Park Slope, Brooklyn) and having nary a scrap of journalism education, what was most impressive was the heights both rose to—Breslin won a Pulitzer while Hamill won a Best Liner Notes Grammy for his essay on the 1975 Bob Dylan album Blood On the Tracks in addition to being recognized with the George Polk Career Award in 2014.
One of the more compelling takeaways from the film was how complicated an individual Breslin was. Well-known for being pugnacious, abrasive and vigorously opinionated, Alter considered Breslin’s persona to be one of the emotional disguises his late friend wore, particularly given the sense of fairness and fighting for the underclass the late scribe displayed in the topics he covered throughout his life. As someone who refused to grieve when his first wife and daughters both died, Breslin showed a very honest moment in the documentary that caught Alter off-guard.
“We were surprised that eventually we were able to show Jimmy without one of the many masks he wore. He was very hard to penetrate and a very complicated man,” Alter said. “The scene where we bring Jimmy back to the house that he lived at in Queens [and where his wife Rosemary died] was captured by Steve McCarthy, my partner who was also the co-director and cinematographer. As we go back to the house, we glimpsed him fighting back tears as we took him back there. This was a man who did not cry at his wife or his daughter’s funerals and he made note of the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy did not cry as her husband was dying. That was a long day of shooting and driving around and not that we wanted to catch him crying, but there was a moment of very raw emotion that we were able to capture on film. It surprised me, because for the longest time, I would say to him that he was wearing a mask and I would ask him to stop telling me that none of this matters to him. Or that he was just trying to get paid and it was just a day’s work. So I think we got some emotional honesty in the film, which is one of the things you’re always looking for, we just weren’t sure that we were going to find it.”
Breslin’s unwavering support of people of color and other members of the underclass also resonated with Alter, particularly given the fact that the Queens native came from the same background as many of the cops who he oftentimes wrote about in less-than-glowing terms when issues of police brutality came up.
“It’s a very important part of the film, because [Jimmy] was willing to criticize his own tribe when it was wrong,” Alter said. “We live in a tribal culture, where most people won’t do that. He was constantly siding with African-Americans, Latinos and other people who’d been pushed around by the same kind of Irish cops he grew up with.”
Impressed by Breslin’s complexity and Hamill’s consistent soulfulness, Alter has a message for anyone that never experienced the duo at their height and the legacy they’ve left behind.
“I want [viewers] to understand that what journalists do is important and it can be fun, invigorating and important all at the same time. And that [Jimmy and Pete] spoke truth to power and that they recognized that you didn’t have to go to a fancy college, or any college at all, to do important work,” the director said. “I think they would inspire people to do better and I hope people will do better after they watch the film. Not just journalists, but anyone who is interested in taking an active role in American life.”
A forum on Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists featuring director Jonathan Alter, former New York City councilwoman and Breslin widow Ronnie Eldridge and New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer will be held on Jan. 30 at the 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Ave., NYC. For more information, visit www.92y.org or call 212-415-5500. Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists will also be airing on HBO. Check local listings for times.