Film Review: The Pulitzer at 100

Gravely celebrating the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the Pulitzer Prize, this sluggish documentary commingles interviews with distinguished recipients, dramatic recitations by famous actors and historical information about Joseph Pulitzer.
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A humorless, highbrow documentary, The Pulitzer at 100 commemorates the centennial of the prestigious prizes named for Joseph Pulitzer, whose 1911 bequest to Columbia University supported the founding of its School of Journalism (the first in the country) and the establishment of the prizes. Bestowed annually for excellence in journalism and the arts, the Pulitzer Prizes were first granted in 1917 as an attempt to elevate the stature of journalism by recognizing its practitioners alongside awardees in the arts and letters.

A patchwork of three distinct kinds of cinematic pieces, the disjointed documentary jumps back and forth between the bookish telling of Pulitzer’s personal rags-to-riches story (illustrated with black-and-white archival photos) and static interviews with recent Pulitzer Prize recipients, punctuated by clips of famous actors reciting selections from Pulitzer-winning literary works. The film abuts its segments up against one another without textual segues or visual transitions, leaving the job of drawing conceptual connections to the viewer. Directed by Kirk Simon, the lethargically paced documentary lacks an engaging through-line and feels much longer than its 91-minute running time.

While his interview subjects include fascinating, accomplished figures—Robert Caro, Tony Kushner, Wynton Marsalis, John Adams, Carl Bernstein—Simon does them a disservice. We don’t hear the questions posed to them, but it seems from their responses that they were asked to talk about how the prize affected them and to elaborate on the impact or resonance of their prize-winning work. And no one—no matter how distinguished—is appealing when touting their own importance. Only Bernstein (awarded the prize in 1973 for his role in exposing the Watergate scandal) chooses to share a funny story, breaking the film’s self-congratulatory tone with a welcome moment of levity.

Though Wendy Blackstone’s diversified score brightens the proceedings, the arty photography (under the direction of Buddy Squires) underlines the documentary’s pretentiousness. As Tracy K. Smith, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry, reads portions of her work, the entire screen is taken up—for a very long time—by an enormous image of just her lips. In another scene, we watch a long close-up of water being poured over a teabag in a cup.

Nonetheless, the film puts forth some thought-provoking ideas about the awarding of the prizes. We are asked to consider that only five individuals do the selecting, that the process is highly subjective, and that many of America’s greatest writers and artists never received a Pulitzer Prize. Most interestingly, interviewee Nicholas Kristof (who was awarded a Pulitzer for International Reporting and Commentary in 1990 and 2006) points out that journalists often win the award because of the noteworthiness of the events they cover, and those events frequently involve great amounts of human suffering and misery. Reporters and photographers have won Pulitzers for their coverage of Hurricane Katrina, the Vietnam War and the tragic events at Kent State and Tiananmen Square.

But most memorable is the biographical information the film proffers about Pulitzer, a Hungarian Jew who came to the United States in response to an ad recruiting mercenaries for the Civil War. It seems that when the draft for Union Army soldiers was instituted, wealthy Bostonians advertised in European newspapers for young men to take their place on the battlefield. Additional chapters of Pulitzer’s story unfold slowly over the course of the film and may sustain the interest of viewers who don’t object to jolting interruptions by the likes of Helen Mirren or John Lithgow doing dramatic recitations, or an earnest photojournalist reflecting on his prize-winning shot.

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