It doesn’t exactly scream “nuance” when a film begins with a character explicitly laying out their values in a monologue. Anyone who was unsure what they were walking into before seeing “Cold Copy” will have their confusion instantly clarified when it opens on journalism student Mia Scott (Bel Powley) rattling off a bunch of buzzwords about speaking truth to power and telling stories that shape our society. If you typed out the entire soliloquy and put it on a tote bag, it probably would have been one of the best-selling items of the 2017 holiday season in the New York Times merch store.
The heavy-handed monologue is indicative of the larger problems looming over “Cold Copy.” While the film never quite devolves into the Resistance-era morality play that the opening scene threatens us with, its exploration of personal ambition and power dynamics in the workplace isn’t much better. Roxine Helberg’s directorial debut constantly reminds us that our world exists in complicated shades of gray, but the story that it tells is painfully black and white.
On paper, Mia has everything that student should need to become a professional journalist. She’s ambitious, curious, thorough, and deeply committed to the idea of the Fourth Estate. Unfortunately, she doesn’t have the connections. As she watches her nepo baby friends break into elite institutions at a much faster rate than she does, the opportunity to take a class taught by cable news icon Diane Heger (Tracee Ellis Ross) seems like the opportunity of a lifetime.
But her hopes of finding a nurturing mentor are quickly dashed when she actually meets Diane face-to-face. The host of “The Night Report” rose to prominence for eviscerating her powerful interview subjects, and she’s no more forgiving of her journalism students. She frequently berates Mia for what she views as regurgitating the opinions of others rather than developing her own, and Mia’s attempts to talk her way into a job quickly go nowhere.
Mia understands that her final project — producing her own documentary segment on a subject of her choice — is her last hope of impressing Diane, so she begins to throw her ethics to the wind. She decides to profile the teenage son of a recently deceased children’s author in an attempt to infiltrate his media-shy family and expose the gory details of his mother’s death.
Diane is considerably more interested in Mia’s ruthless pursuit of salacious details than her principled screeds, and the rule breaking eventually lands Mia a coveted job as her assistant. The post gives Mia an opportunity to see the cutthroat world of cable news for what it really is, and Diane encourages her to bend even more rules in her quest to tell an entertaining story. The Diane that we see at work bears almost no resemblance to the intellectual persona that she puts on in the classroom. Mia soon learns that all the academic theory in the world can’t teach her the real lesson of the course: elite journalists do whatever it takes to survive.
Unfortunately, “Cold Copy” adds nothing new to the time-honored “twisted mentor pushes their brilliant student to the limits” movie that we’ve seen many times before. Attempts to combine “Whiplash” and “The Newsroom” unfold in a predictable pattern, and the writing invokes many of the worst journalism movie tropes. (Exchanges such as “That story was milked to death,” “Oh yeah? I remember your hands being all over those udders” are unfortunately common occurrences.) By the time Diane asks Mia to sign a contract that’s “just basic legal stuff” without reading it, it’s hard to imagine anyone who has ever seen a movie before not immediately guessing what’s coming.
What’s particularly depressing about “Cold Copy” is the fact that the current TV journalism landscape contains no shortage of cinematic angles. Anyone who read Tim Alberta’s gripping Chris Licht profile in The Atlantic can attest to the fact that the business is facing one existential crisis on top of another. The question of establishing journalistic credibility while chasing ratings in an attention economy continues to stump the industry’s finest minds — and that’s before you factor in the inevitable decline of linear television. With so many new journalism stories begging to be told, there’s simply no reason to retread old ones this poorly.
“Cold Copy” premiered at the 2023 Tribeca Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.