If You Write the News, or Read It, Here’s a Movie for You

By Mike Feinsilber

How New York Times obit writers work.

“Hey, I just saw a great movie you ought to see.”


“It’s a documentary.”

“I like documentaries. What’s it about?”

“It’s called Obit. It’s about the eight or so people at the New York Times who write the obituaries.”

“Oh, gee. I can’t. Got to rewrite my will tonight.”

I can imagine this conversation taking place a thousand times. What was director Vanessa Gould thinking? Who wants to watch people writing obituaries?

You might–if you’re a journalist, or you’re sort of interested in the news business or wonder how the Times (and other great papers) find out all that fascinating stuff about people the day after they’ve expired.

Obit opened in New York and Washington and is making its way across the country. It is one terrific movie. It ranks with All the President’s Men and Spotlight as movies that make me proud of my 50 years in the news business.

NPR called it “heartfelt and unshakeable.” The website Rotten Tomatoes says 40 critics gave it a “fresh” rating and only three called it “rotten.” Pete Hammond on Deadline Hollywood says it is “as fascinating a movie as I’ve seen in a long, long time.”

Obit consists almost entirely of talk by the obit writers who spend their days talking sympathetically to survivors, reading clips from the paper’s morgue—endless rows of file cabinets filled with decades of clippings recounting how they made the news. You watch them piece together a life, weed out a widow’s exaggerations and scrape up the quirky facets that made a person interesting. This is all done with a deadline approaching.

“They act almost like investigative journalists attempting to get to the essence of the now deceased and the lives they once led,” Hammond says on his website.

Most of the movie consists of the writers or editors or researchers talking straight into the camera. The credits list 12 writers, each played by “himself” and one, Margalit Fox, played by “herself.”

Margalit Fox writes like an angel, with grace and wit and charm and glee and truthiness. She writes like a twinkling poet. In a piece written about the movie, Ms. Fox calls obituary writing “perhaps the strangest calling in American journalism but also the very best.”

As one of the writers in the movie says, the Times’ obituaries have “next to nothing to do with death and everything to do with life.” In obituaries, death appears only as a verb in graf one and a mention of the cause of death in graf two. The rest is full of life.

The movie shows editors worrying over how much space each covered life deserves. Eight hundred words is pretty standard. Some—a president, a pope,  a Stalinesque dictator—start on page one and jump inside, filling pages.

We the audience get to eavesdrop while obituary writer Bruce Weber interviews a new widow, coaxing essential facts from her—maiden names, where educated, who survives.

Mistakes lurk. One writer, irritated, tells of making one, identifying a long-departed congressman who earned a mention inside someone else’s obit as a member of the wrong political party. Obits are full of facts and old facts can be trouble. They’re like Slinkies.

Transposed throughout are scenes from archival newsreels or home movies of the once-famous in glory days. We see Richard Nixon sweat during his first debate with John F. Kennedy. Why show that? Because Weber is writing the obituary of William P. Wilson, the media consultant in charge of making JFK look young and vigorous.

Most obits of important people are “advance obits” written long before they are needed, updated periodically and sometimes based on an interview with the subject. But some people die before anyone had done an advance. Michael Jackson died on June 25, 2009 at age 50 and the Times had nothing prepared;  the obituary team went into what Robert Ebert called “manic overdrive.”

It became a joint effort by New York and the Times’ Los Angeles bureau and bore the byline of Brooks Barnes who, the Times said, “covers all things Hollywood.”

His lead:

LOS ANGELES — For his legions of fans, he was the Peter Pan of pop music: the little boy who refused to grow up. But on the verge of another attempted comeback, he is suddenly gone, this time for good.

Michael Jackson, whose quintessentially American tale of celebrity and excess took him from musical boy wonder to global pop superstar to sad figure haunted by lawsuits, paparazzi and failed plastic surgery, was pronounced dead on Thursday afternoon at U.C.L.A. Medical Center after arriving in a coma, a city official said. Mr. Jackson was 50, having spent 40 of those years in the public eye he loved.
Mike Feinsilber spent about a quarter century with UPI in Pittsburgh, Columbus, Harrisburg, Newark, New York, Saigon and Washington and about a quarter century with AP in Washington, with a spell as assistant bureau chief and a stint as writing coach.


  1. Richard Mattersdorff says

    “Once a muscular advocate of U.S. escalation in Vietnam, he gradually came to put more emphasis on the need to be diplomatically and politically supportive of nationalist aspirations in developing countries.”

    Do obituary writers often obtain revealing photos of their subjects? The above is from the WaPo obituary of Brzezinski.

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