Donald Trump’s presidency seems to have pushed everyone to the limit, regardless of how you judge the White House. But if you’re someone who works in The New York Times’ New York or Washington, D.C. bureaus (or reads their coverage), you’ve been driven to exhaustion from the get-go. Their work covering the first year of the Trump administration is documented in the harrowing Showtime series The Fourth Estate, and it’s an effort as hard to accept and as unsatisfying as the actual coverage it depicts.
Don’t get me wrong, it’s an achievement, to be sure. Did I like it? Is it good? That’s not really what’s going on here. Like the subject matter of The Fourth Estate, which is how to report on someone or something that wants to fight you all the way to the finish line, you have to start by asking the right questions.
So what does The Fourth Estate do? Well, Liz Garbus’ docuseries, of which critics got to see three of four parts, tackles the dueling forces mostly recently seen at work in Steven Spielberg’s The Post. It’s the business of newspapers versus the ideals of newspapers, the personal ambitions of reporters versus the ethical ambitions of reporters, what power says and what power does. This modern update is so thorough that it can feel superfluous if you’re caught up and overwhelming if you’re not. Well, it’ll feel overwhelming no matter what your situation, since that’s by design. But it’s not here as a substitute for a subscription.
The Fourth Estate isn’t meant to pass along the news or even deepen the understanding of the already informed, but to provide perspective and humanize the journalists for whom this administration has changed from the Wild West to Westworld. It’s pushed them to their logistical and professional limits while making social media stars of some and villains of others (which the series highlights, obsessing over on-screen depictions of Twitter almost as much as those addicted to the service, me included), veterans of the war between facts and lies.
From Trump’s inauguration, which kicks off the first episode, this has been deemed a presidency of darkness: The Times’ longtime rival The Washington Post even adopted as its slogan, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” This assigns the news the responsibility of shining a light to save the life of democracy. That’s a task so big it’s hard to avoid hearing about it if you’ve been on the Internet, watched TV, or read a paper in the last year. It’s as if every reporter were prepared to become Woodward and/or Bernstein (which, c’mon, applies to every journalist even under normal circumstances) simply because there’s scarcely a good faith façade of competency or cooperation from the subjects they’re covering.
The dirtiness of the administration is forecast in every aesthetic facet of the documentary, which gets its episodic structure from the ironic fortune that the Trump presidency kept its scandals coming at a bingeable pace. “You get tired of saying ‘holy shit’ because you’d be saying it every three hours. You could probably set your timer to it,” Times reporter Maggie Haberman says. And yes, once The Fourth Estate got the guy from Nine Inch Nails to do the theme, there was no question about the approach. David Fincher’s Se7en was disturbing, but at least they spread the sins out over a few people. Time-beaten Morgan Freeman and idealistic, obsessed Brad Pitt are nowhere to be found. Instead we have Haberman, Dean Baquet, and Glenn Thrush.
Inter-bureau conflict about rewritten softball ledes and social media scuffles offer insight into journalism’s smaller dramas, but it’s like watching a bickering old couple from inside a tornado. Sometimes these are juxtaposed with the chaos they’re covering in thoughtful ways that make the two seem as important as they obviously are (like the walkout over the elimination of the Times’ copy desk as the paper finally seemed to be making headway against the White House). Other times they’re as underplayed as the softballs themselves.
Moments of humanization, the moments outside the newsroom and the foibles of office life (like getting a knot in your press badge’s lanyard), are sparse and weightless enough that their calculated objective in the editing process—make these folks seem regular despite extraordinary circumstances—is transparent. What actually makes them seem regular isn’t their kids or their dogs, but that moment when a statement comes out and they react with the same “Can you fucking believe this?” as everyone down at your local bar. They’re just professionally inclined to give more of a shit. It’s an exhausting rush through the hectic lives of the people trying to piece together a puzzle in which the pieces keep disguising their shape. On one hand, fuck this puzzle. On the other, imagine if you were the one to solve it.
The Fourth Estate efficiently bundles all the stress of being on Twitter for the last year into only four hours. I’m not sure I liked it and, as someone who’s paid more attention to its subject than, say, how my cousin’s new baby is doing, I’m not sure I needed it. But it’s an impossible-to-ignore document of an undeniably historic time, attempting to look beyond its moment while being entirely of it.
The Fourth Estate premieres Sunday, May 27 at 7:30 p.m. on Showtime.
Jacob Oller is a writer and film critic whose writing has appeared in The Guardian, Playboy, Roger Ebert, Film School Rejects, Chicagoist, Vague Visages, and other publications. He lives in Chicago, plays Dungeons and Dragons, and struggles not to kill his two cats daily. You can follow him on Twitter here: @jacoboller.