When aliens attack, real news anchors are on the scene
Godzilla is rampaging. Aliens are invading. Batman and Superman are having a tiff.
Quick, turn on CNN.
To explain extravagant disasters and superhero showdowns to awed moviegoers, Hollywood relies on the men and women who frame breaking stories for real. Increasingly, the summer big-budget movies resemble a media scrum, full of real TV news anchors who give their gravitas to fictional broadcasts, lending a dose of authenticity to blatantly implausible events.
Pat Kiernan, the friendly face of New York's 24/7 regional network NY1, has watched in wry bemusement as his IMDB page has swelled to a list of credits that would be the envy of most actors. Among them: "The Avengers," ''Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit," ''30 Rock," ''Iron Man" and the upcoming "Ghostbusters."
His (and his network's) main stipulation is that he stay true to his manner of reporting, however absurd the action. Kiernan usually tapes his cameos directly from his home studio, before making actual news reports.
"I like to cling to this idea that it's sort of how we would actually react to those circumstances," says Kiernan. "This was never truer than in '4:44 Last Day on Earth' when I literally had to pronounce the end of the world and sign off."
Though some chafe at real journalists giving fake bulletins, the summer blockbuster has never been more dependent on them. Among the fictional reporter ranks of Clark Kent and Lois Lane in "Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice" was a parade of news personalities, from Anderson Cooper to Charlie Rose. It's common on television, too, nowhere more so than on Netflix's Beltway drama "House of Cards," which has stuffed its deck with nearly every political reporter in town, from Rachel Maddow to George Stephanopoulos.
Though there have been numerous clever cameos, most are utilized as talking heads of exposition who duct-tape over a gap in the plot or provide the most straightforward of background summaries. They're a camera-ready Greek chorus for today's media-saturated world.
"I'm often acting as the narrator who, in 20 seconds through the audience looking in on this news report, can explain something that might have taken two minutes through dialogue," says Kiernan.
Since first appearing in the original "Ghostbusters," Larry King estimates that he's been in about 24 movies. He's mostly played himself, with the exception of "Shrek" (he voiced the ugly stepsister Doris) and a bee-version of himself ("Bee Larry King") in Jerry Seinfeld's "Bee Movie."
"When I was a kid, I never saw Edward R. Murrow in a movie. I never saw (Walter) Cronkite in a movie. I never saw Mike Wallace in a movie," says King. "The trend, I guess, started in the '80s. Now it's fairly common and I think it's fine. It all adds to the willing suspension of disbelief."
In the 2001 romantic comedy "America's Sweethearts," King's cameo took some rewriting. In the script, John Cusack has a dream of his actress wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones) not just getting berated on "Larry King Live," but physically assaulted.
"CNN called the head of the film company and said Larry King can't hit anybody," says King. Instead, he yells at her until she cries.
Sometimes there's corporate synergy behind the appearances. Time Warner, for example, owns both Warner Bros. and CNN. Overuse of the tactic has drawn criticism. After Robert Zemeckis' cosmic 1997 drama "Contact" was stuffed with more than a dozen CNN reporters, then-CNN President Tom Johnson revamped the network's policy.
"When I started working in TV news, every news department had a different philosophy. Every news president had a different philosophy," says Soledad O'Brien, whose credits just this year include "Zoolander 2," ''Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" and "Batman v Superman." ''At CNN, under one president, the rule was: It's absolutely fine to be in a film. And then the next president was: Absolutely not."
O'Brien, King and Kiernan say they relish their movie experiences. It can boost their individual brands as well as their networks, and the residuals aren't bad either. "I still get checks for 15 cents, 23 cents from 'Ghostbusters,'" says King. They enjoy playing small cogs in huge productions, even if they sometimes serve as collateral damage.
"People were very concerned that I died when the building exploded in 'Batman v Superman,'" says O'Brien, laughing. "I had to tell everyone: 'Listen, I'm sure I didn't die. I feel confident I ran out of the building.'"
While the actors playing newspaper reporters in the best-picture winner "Spotlight" won widespread praise from the media, the industry has looked less fondly on the real newsmen and newswomen playing themselves.
The Washington Post called it a danger to the profession to treat journalists like "commodities." New York Magazine chastised reporters for "(selling) themselves out for a movie." The Los Angeles Times lamented the loss of credibility to those who "turn themselves into live-action cartoons."
King maintains viewers aren't confused: "You have to not be the brightest to think it's a real story," he says.
But some see the practice as another example of news and entertainment overlapping. Robert Thompson, director of Syracuse University's Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture, points out that Cronkite appeared on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and Murrow participated in a fictionalized retelling of the "War of the Worlds" panic. But he urges news organizations to reconsider their roles as pitchmen for Hollywood-made disasters.
"It might be even touchier right now in that the trust factor among most Americans of the 'mainstream' journalism, television especially, is so low," says Thompson. "None of this stuff helps."
Perhaps the cottage industry of pseudo movie news speaks to a larger wish-fulfillment for the media: that when momentous events occur, we turn not to social media or our phones, but to those old standbys — a five-column newspaper headline, an anchor's live-breaking broadcast — to impart a sense of magnitude.
"Twitter," shrugs Kiernan, "doesn't make for very good movies."