Just how involved should a journalist get? How deeply entangled should he be with the subjects of his columns? Just how far should he venture into newsmaking instead of news reporting?
These are the central questions in The Columnist, and they are brilliantly asked by John Lithgow as real life political columnist Joseph Alsop who influenced and made politics via his column in 160 newspapers in the US. His home in Washington was a meeting place for Senators and Presidents, he was feared and therefore able to make his “suggestions” heard and followed by the rulers and people in power. And one of the most powerful people at that time was Joseph Alsop.
Only once he was exposed: picked up in a hotel bar in Russia he spends a night with a russian tour guide, totally unaware that blonde Andrej who so convincingly told him he was actually attracted to him and loved the sex with him, Andrej who spoke four languages and still was only a tour guide, was in truth KGB – his hotel room had been bugged and the photos of him having sex with another man used to blackmail the powerful journalist.
this was not only the beginning of the play, it also was the beginning of Alsop’s lifelong paranoia which grew more and more prominent, the older he got. But at first it didn’t stop his meddling with politics. Even when his brother seeks another job because he does not want to be in the middle of all that scheming, Joseph continues, even marrying his housekeeper, telling her he is not interested in her as a woman, but offering her a lifestyle in the middle of parties and power. On the day John F Kennedy is elected president, the most important party, the party where the president shows up to relax and have a chat, is the one in Alsop’s house – the center of the universe.
But there are consequences to Alsop’s take on political journalism. As he is so close to the powerful people he should be writing about, they are able to influence him by catering to his vanity. His brother sees it, his co workers see it and there are rumors about certain pictures. And then his friend, charismatic leader Kennedy is assassinated. His writing changes – nothing is good enough compared with the dead prince of camelot. His influence, though still there, is waning even tho he is still feared. and then his wife leaves – she had thought she could .. “change” him and she breaks when he mercilessly makes fun of her desperate attempt to explain her desires.
Alone after his brother’s death from Leukemia he writes against the hippie movement, against the peace rallies and stands by his conviction that the vietnam war is an american success. Alone and even without contact to his beloved step daughter he finally meets a young Russian in a park in Washington – a man who turns out to be Andrej who is now an attache at the ambassy, trying to apologize and give back the negatives. But Alsop, faced with the young man can only think about his revenge – he will write a column that will destroy Andrej’s life, maybe even cost it.
It is late that night and Alsop is sitting over his column – a death sentence in cold war Russia. but for once he actually SEES the consequences of his writing up close and personal. and probably for the first time in his life he destroys a column and will be late delivering his work…
Lithgow is absolutely brilliant as the assholey journalist who is using his power to manipulate and gain power instead of observing and writing about it. He delivers a character study of how power can make you lose sight of integrity and personal happiness while you are driven into paranoia and loneliness. It is the perfect play to compliment The Best Man – both being about the corruption of the mind, of losing sight of your principles – but from different points of view. I just was lucky to have booked these two plays in consecutive order (unknowingly, tho!)