Media Storm: Billy Wilder’s “Ace In The Hole”
A Media Storm Brewing
Chuck Tatum, played by an explosive Kirk Douglas, is a crooked newspaper man who’s been run out of every major city and winds up at a paper in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bored, and itching for a real story, he happens upon a break, a scavenger named Leo Minosa trapped in a cave in the village of Escovedo a few hours from town. Tatum sees the potential. It’s a “human interest story,” he says. “Eighty people get trapped in a coal mine, you read about it, sure, but does it really hit you? Now if it’s just one guy all by himself, suddenly people want to know all about him.” Anxious to resurrect his career, Tatum makes arrangements with the corrupt small-town sheriff (who keeps a rattlesnake in a cardboard box) and they tamper with the rescue operation, ensuring that the victim will be trapped as long as possible to draw out the sensationalist and economic impact. A few phone calls later, the small New Mexico town has been transformed to an amusement park crawling with oglers.
Maybe the viewers couldn’t see what was to become of the news by the Twenty-First century. The movie received tepid reviews upon release. The Twenty-First Century viewer, used to the 24-hour news cycle and the story of the week, may not be as shocked by media hysteria. You can almost picture Leo making the late-night TV rounds and showing up on the covers of the check-out line rags. Only Leo doesn’t make it out alive.
The Post-War Media Storm
In 1951, post-war prosperity is underway, people are flocking to the sun-belt to bask in the new America. What Wilder always gets right about this America is the utter boredom that overshadowed all that wealth. It’s boredom that Tatum sees in people, and he’s selling them excitement. He knows the more sensation he can generate the more they’ll eat it up. It’s easy to sell to the locals, especially Leo’s bored wife (Jan Sterling), a firecracker at heart who Tatum has to persuade to stay in town. She does, and rakes in the profits at her roadside diner.
21st Century Media Storm
If “Ace In The Hole” is smaller example of America, than Tatum—though an anomaly in the world of the film—is today’s media culture as a whole. Sensationalism always seems to win, but while Fox News and CNN may seem evil to us, Tatum would be quick to point out that they’re only giving the people what they want. No matter how much suffering there is in the world, people are bored and crave entertainment. Journalistic integrity doesn’t sell.