An Ode to “Muscular Journalism”
HBO’s Hamill and Breslin Doc Sticks up for the Little Guy
In the early 1980s, I thought the Mets would never win the World Series again. In fact, they were so bad, I wondered how they ever had in the first place. Then I read Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, which hysterically chronicles their inaugural season of 1962. While talking about the team that still holds the record for most losses in a single season at 120, Breslin laughed with the Mets, but not at them. That told you a lot about him. He was always about the little guy, whether exploited workers, wrongfully-accused teenagers, sickly AIDS patients, or horribly incompetent baseball players.
I first experienced Pete Hamill’s work a few years later in high school while reading the liner notes to my favorite album of all time, Bob Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks. Hamill won a Grammy for those notes, which are really more of an essay than anything. As Dylan was on the verge of reinventing himself yet again in 1974, he asked Hamill to use his words to interpret his work and lyrics. Hamill provides a review of an album before it’s even been heard by the public:
“By leaving things out, he allows us the grand privilege of creating along with him. His song becomes our song because we live in those spaces.”
Hamill could also easily be talking about his own prose. He admittedly didn’t have any formal training before joining the New York Post in 1960. Neither did Breslin, for that matter. Nonetheless, these two men became the faces of newspaper journalism. Breslin was in beer commercials and even appeared on Saturday Night Live (with Marvin Hagler, so you know it’s from the mid 80s). Hamill befriended Frank Sinatra and Bobby Kennedy and went on to date both Jackie Onassis and Shirley MacLaine simultaneously. How did he engage such high-profile beauties? He simply listened, we’re told.
When Jimmy Breslin died in 2017, the obits widely reported that it signified the end of “new journalism.” Jonathan Alter (political journalist and author), John Block, and Steve McCarthy’s HBO documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists could have been a schmaltzy look at a forgotten age where hard-boiled journalists didn’t take any shit. It could have been a look at newsroom culture that you could get from any number of great movies or the last season of The Wire. But instead, they give us something much more meaningful. Breslin and Hamill were colleagues and competitors at different times in their lives, but they were always friends. Fortunately, Deadline Artists provides a lot of 2015 footage of the two of them together. Old age had softened them (Breslin survived an aneurysm in 1991), but we really see their mutual respect and friendship shine through.
There’s also a ton of other notables to fill in the blanks. “New Journalists” Gay Talese and the late Tom Wolfe are there. The filmmakers also interview Colin Quinn, Spike Lee, Andrew Cuomo, Robert DeNiro, and MacLaine herself. Michael Rispoli, best known as “Jackie Aprile” on The Sopranos, reads Breslin’s words for us. We hear his interview with the man who buried JFK, his correspondence with David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, and his defense of the kids shot by Bernard Goetz. We see Breslin defend the Central Park Five in 1989 against the full-page newspaper ad purchased by Donald Trump. Trump’s dissertation on the importance of hate and plea to bring back the death penalty takes on a nauseating relevance today. But at the time, it provided another example of Breslin’s crusade to speak for the misunderstood.
I couldn’t help think about thinking about Howard Cosell while listening to Breslin. HBO’s excellent Telling It Like It Is ( 1999) chronicled the slow process by which the man was swallowed by his legend. Both Breslin and Cosell fought for the rights of African-Americans but ended up being disgraced by their own “racist” comments. Cosell’s use of “monkey” was probably unintentional while Newsday fired Breslin after he berated a female Korean columnist. He just couldn’t help his big mouth. The filmmakers interview Gloria Steinem herself to remind us of this. How could Breslin be a chauvinist when he wanted to recruit Steinem to run with him and fellow muscular writer Norman Mailer for New York City council in 1969?
The most powerful moment of Breslin’s story is the recounting of his first wife’s passing. His son remembers how he wouldn’t take even a day to mourn. That’s how precious time is, his father said. Yet Breslin can’t help but get choked up as he’s driven by their former home. Hamill also recounts his battles with grief. He personally encouraged Bobby Kennedy to run for president in 1968. While he doesn’t reveal his feelings of guilt, he does mention his regret at it being the one time he chose to befriend a journalistic subject. He was unable to return to writing until a friendly priest told him he wasn’t good enough to have writer’s block. Hamill’s harrowing descriptions of trying to find his wife on September 11 suggest otherwise.
Hamill is still with us to tell the tale. At the end, the film shows him on a park bench on his beloved Brooklyn (Breslin similarly represented Queens) taking in the scenery. Rather than spoil Deadline Artists’conclusion with Hamill’s closing words, I’ll just use the lyrics he chose to feature in his Grammy-winning essay:
“Listen: the poet sings to all of us:
But I’ll see you in the sky above,
In the tall grass,
In the ones I love.
You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.”