Boston Strangler and the Fantasy of Journalism

You may not know this, but I actually have a degree in journalism.

And history, too, but I got that one by accident – that’s a whole other story. But journalism was always my main focus, has been since I started looking into what I could do for an actual career within the world of writing – the thought of bringing those important stories, whether on a huge scale or a small one, to light, really spoke to me. I can still remember getting that university offer at sixteen, feeling that buzz as I imagined what a career in journalism was going to be like.

Except…it wasn’t. I got into journalism and writing in general at a time when things were majorly in flux in the industry; magazines moving from physical copies to online versions, if they survived at all, bylines on articles moving to blogs instead, bustling newsrooms replaced with work-from-home desks and video calls and freelance work. The four years I spent studying were basically a slow, dour realisation that the industry I thought I’d be getting into didn’t exist – the people teaching me often from that old version that was moving closer and closer to obsolescence. In a lot of ways, it was incredibly sad, the industry I thought I’d be getting in to (and the one I was taught to navigate) far more fantasy than reality by the time I graduated. There wouldn’t be the boot-leather investigation I’d imagined, the collaboration with a roomful of journalistic colleagues, the inside scoops, the off-the-record interviews in dark bars.

The groundwork, incidentally, for Boston Strangler, a 2023 release directed by Matt Ruskin following the story of Loretta McLaughlin (Kiera Knightley), a reporter following the Boston Strangler case over the course of the 1960s. It’s very much a movie in the classic frame of journalism films – an investigation, led by a plucky and dedicated reporter (seriously, go look into Loretta McLaughlin’s real-life career – the woman was a downright marvel and an icon for women in the journalism industry).

And it’s a good movie, it really is. Knightley’s career has been infinitely more interesting since she grew out of the love interest bear trap, and, matched with the brilliant Carrie Coon, she’s got great on-screen energy to play off. The period trappings are well-realized, and the story, as confusing and often contradictory as it actually was, is unfolded in a compelling and reasonably coherent fashion. The touches on issues of sexism within the industry and how they’re reflected in the crimes committed by the killer give things a little more weight, and David Dalmatschian has a standout turn as one of the major suspects involved in the case.

But what drew me to it, more than anything, is that fantasy of journalism, the one that feels like a whole other world now. The one that bloomed in the latter half of the twentieth century, it’s a seductive thing – the thought of being able to get out there and make a real difference, to put boots on the ground and have a platform and an income to support the pursuit of a worthy story. When it comes to popular journalism movies – Zodiac, All The King’s Men, The Post, to name a few – it’s this depiction of journalism that holds the most weight when it comes to cinema. Modern journalism, whether you think it better or worse in general, has allowed us more access to debunk what we’re being told by once-reliable sources; these depictions allow us to forget that, and get lost in the fantasy of a people in an industry that’s reliable, truth-seeking, and ultimately for the public good.

A lot of movies tap into nostalgia for another time, but the continued popularity of movies that depict journalism from this specific era and in this specific way, I think, reflect something in the industry that a lot of us grew up with and never got to experience for ourselves. In a world of messy, increasingly decentralised journalism, Boston Strangler and movies like it tap in to a nostalgia for an increasingly more distant kind of journalism.

If you enjoyed this article and want to see more stuff like it,  please consider supporting us on Ko-Fi. You can check out more of my work on my personal blog, The Cutprice Guignol!

By Lou MacGregor

(header image via High On Films)

One Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s