There’s a bittersweet component that dominates “Obit,” a documentary about the talented journalists working the Obituary desk at The New York Times; a group of writers who themselves are employed by a dying industry. They are all saddled with the stigma of writing about death when in fact, they are writing about a celebration of life.
If you’ve ever read any of the obituaries in The New York Times, then you’re most likely a fan of their always eloquent and oftentimes entertaining send-offs of a notable figure’s legacy. There are those who quickly turn to that section of the paper, diving head first into the 500 to 800 word write-ups just to see who has recently died. Some of your friends and relatives will find you most peculiar, taken aback by your seemingly macabre fascinating with reading the often scorned section of any newspaper. But those in the know will understand how a well crafted and compassionate obituary can leave a respectful, lasting tribute to a person’s legacy. That’s what makes these writers so special.
The story of these unsung journalists is told through a combination of file footage, photographs, and interviews, looking back at some of the most influential people to warrant their own coverage in the paper, from superstar Michael Jackson to Pope John Paul II to little known influencers of history like William P. Wilson (the television consultant who prepped John F. Kennedy for the game changing 1960 debate with Nixon). The stories about the deceased are often just as interesting as the writers themselves, and the concern of balancing facts with an entertaining composition is one with which the writers constantly struggle.
Most Times readers will gleefully enjoy putting the names with the faces of the bylines they see each week, as veteran obit writers Bruce Weber, Margalit Fox, and William Grimes are interviewed at length. The subjects are both authoritative and strange, each brimming with a certain idiosyncrasy that it takes to be assigned to the obit desk. The unexpected star of the film is keeper of the “morgue” (aka the paper’s massive photo and news clippings archive) Jeff Roth. This guy needs his own documentary, as the most entertaining scenes in this movie are of Roth simply thumbing through stuffed drawers and giving a no-nonsense (yet fascinating) tour of cabinet after cabinet of historical treasures, including yellowed photographs and now-antique documents.
As a writer by profession myself, I would’ve liked to see more of the writing processes showed instead of just brief glimpses into a typical day in the life of a Times obituary writer. (It did make me chuckle to see some of the same methods are employed by writers of all pedigrees, from zoning out with a headphone concert to procrastinating coffee runs to hours just staring at words on a computer screen until your brain can conjure that perfect sentence). The documentary also could benefit from a deeper exploration of the challenges surrounding the evolution from the ink and paper news industry to the gotta-have-it-now internet-based immediacy. It’s the rare occasion when there’s a pile of stress or a pressing deadline due to a sudden, surprise death, but it does happen. (The fact that the paper keeps hundreds of advance, pre-written obits on hand is also compelling — if also a little grim).
Eventually the film falls into the common trap that derails most documentaries and becomes a lengthy parade of talking heads. The story lacks a polished flow and the ending is a little too abrupt, but director Vanessa Gould successfully conveys the story of a group of obit writers in a creative and slightly unexpected way. As each writer attests onscreen, their jobs aren’t really that sad or depressing but coming to work every day sure does make them think about mortality a lot. Weber himself takes to reminding the audience that “there’s nothing you can do about dying, by the way.”
As far as newsroom docs go, this isn’t as intriguing as “Page One” but it still manages a lovely exploration of the true craft of writing and is a film that all journalism junkies should seek out.