December 9, 2018

Documentary filmmaker takes a look at the Pulitzer Prize at 100

Does the Pulitzer Prize truly represent the best in writing, photography and music composition? Or is it an arbitrary reward based on politics and whoever happens to be on the jury that year?

The independently produced documentary film “The Pulitzer at 100” strikes a reverent tone in discussing the prize’s centenary. Director Kirk Simon says he has “great respect” for those who have won the Pulitzer. “It clearly is writing that excels, or photographs or music,” he said.

The film, which premieres on Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall in Beverly Hills, weaves together several narratives: a coterie of recipients reflecting on the prize and what it meant for their careers; selections from award-winning pieces of journalism or fiction, read by A-list actors; and details about the life of Joseph Pulitzer, the prize’s eponymous publishing magnate.

Born in Hungary in 1847 to a Jewish family, Pulitzer came to the United States in 1864 to join the Union Army in the final months of the Civil War. He then moved to St. Louis, where he worked first as a reporter. In 1878, after making some profitable business deals, he bought the bankrupt St. Louis Dispatch at public auction, and merged it with the St. Louis Evening Post, into the St. Louis Post and Dispatch (now the Post-Dispatch), still the city’s daily newspaper. He developed a style of journalism that mixed investigative reporting with sensational coverage of sex and crime that appealed to the growing ranks of mass transit commuters.

His move to New York City and purchase of the New York World newspaper led to a circulation war with William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal. While both men engaged in scandal-mongering “yellow journalism,” Pulitzer later decided to establish his namesake prize to elevate the public’s respect for the profession and recognize excellence in journalism.

Director Kirk Simon. Photo from Twitter

Pulitzer donated $2 million to establish Columbia University’s journalism school, which opened in 1912. The university at first refused the gift because at the time, journalism was considered an unsuitable field for educated students. Columbia has administered the prizes since they were first handed out in 1917.

The film focuses on the past half-century of award-winning coverage, including stories written about the Vietnam War, the Watergate scandal, the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Hurricane Katrina and the West Africa Ebola crisis.

“It’s the top honor. But this is a show-me business. And if you think you can put your feet up and say, ‘OK, I’ve got this award, I’m fine now,’ you can’t,” New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman says in the film. “Every day you’ve got to go out, and you’ve got to beat the competition.”

Friedman, who won the prize in 1983, 1988 and 2002, won an international reporting prize for his coverage of the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon and its aftermath, including the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (a winner in 1990 and 2006), who reports regularly from war zones, is one of several speakers in the film who questions the prize’s merit.

New York Times reporter Nicholas Kristof. Photo from Facebook

“The Pulitzer is the standard metric of success, and everybody knows it’s a little bit misleading, that in some ways it’s a prize for the event, not for the people who cover it,” Kristof said. He won the 1990 prize for international reporting for his coverage of 1989’s Tiananmen Square massacre, in which Chinese soldiers fired on pro-democracy demonstrators, sharing the prize with his wife, Sheryl WuDunn.

Kristof was then the Times’ Beijing bureau chief and said that people who had helped him cover the crackdown were put in jail or fled the country.

“It felt kind of unfair that they had taken all the risk, got none of the credit, and here I was, being heaped on with prizes,” he said. “And there is a certain irony in gaining from a surge in human misery.”

Similarly, editors and reporters of The Times-Picayune in New Orleans recount the challenges of covering Hurricane Katrina. While winning the Pulitzer was “great recognition for that commitment,” James O’Byrne said, the staff gladly would give back the award, Manuel Torres said, “if we can have our city without the destruction, without the death, without the suffering that we went through.”

Fiction writers strike dual tones of reverence and skepticism. Writer Michael Chabon says winning the prize in 2001 for his novel “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay” was “truly one of the absolute greatest days in my entire life.” The story follows two teenage boys enthralled by comic books in 1940s New York, and Chabon says the award emboldened him to take more stylistic and narrative risks.

Writer Junot Diaz refers to his fellow jurors as “slightly evolved monkeys” who are simply doing their best. Novelist Michael Cunningham thinks different jurors would not have awarded his book “The Hours” the prize for fiction in 1999, joking that it’s “another reason the prize goes into the sock drawer.”

Writers are eager to criticize the Pulitzer for its sins of omissions (“A Farewell to Arms,” “The Catcher in the Rye,” “Invisible Man” and “The Great Gatsby” all failed to win). Critics also point out that jurors historically have lauded privileged white men, although great strides are being made toward inclusivity. Not explored in the film is the bias that jurors have typically shown toward liberal writers or writers who advocate against conservative causes.

The film also pays homage to the enormous work that goes into the creation of such exemplary writing, and it serves as a meditation on the transformative power of creativity.

Pulitzer-winning dramatists discuss the joys and challenges of their craft, including Paula Vogel, whose play “How I Learned to Drive” examines issues of pedophilia, incest and misogyny; Ayad Akhtar, whose play “Disgraced” looks at identity politics and Islamophobia; and Tony Kushner, whose landmark opus “Angels in America” about the AIDS crisis has been staged countless times.

Interspersed with the interviews are dramatic readings from Pulitzer-winning novels, poems and plays by such actors as John Lithgow, Natalie Portman, Helen Mirren and Liev Schreiber.

Simon has been nominated for an Academy Award four times, winning once. One nomination was given for producing “Isaac in America: A Journey With Isaac Bashevis Singer,” and he won in 2011 for the HBO short documentary “Strangers No More,” about a school in Tel Aviv that educates the children of immigrant workers.

The Pulitzer recipients Simon reached out to “were very receptive to my requests. I would say the only person who was not was Philip Roth,” who won the fiction prize for his 1997 novel “American Pastoral.” The famously elusive writer, Simon decided, turned down the request because “he wants his work to be judged by his work.”

While the bulk of the film is devoted to the written word, it also profiles award-winning photographers and composers, such as Nick Ut, whose photograph of a naked girl fleeing a napalm bombing helped cement Western public opinion against the Vietnam War; composer John Adams, whose haunting piece “On the Transmigration of Souls” remembers the victims of Sept. 11; and jazz composer Wynton Marsalis, whose jazz oratorio “Blood on the Fields” concerns a couple moving from slavery to freedom.

But most of the prizes are for journalism, and just as Joseph Pulitzer intended, his prize shines a spotlight on the hard work of investigative reporters.

“I don’t think that the American public, the general public, has a full sense of what’s involved in investigative reporting,” Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron says in the film. “Many times they think it’s just a matter of having a source. And it’s a lot more than that. It’s hugely challenging. It’s hugely difficult. It’s a lot of tedious work that takes place over a long period of time.”

Simon hopes his documentary also contributes to a greater respect for the work of quality journalism.

“We have to question and show how hard it is to present the truth, and these days in the world of [President Donald] Trump, you have a government standing between you and reporting the truth,” he said. “So it’s never been easy, it always changes, and that’s what journalists are up against.”

“The Pulitzer at 100” premieres Aug. 11 at Laemmle Music Hall, 9036 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, with director Kirk Simon in attendance. For more information, visit