Written, produced and directed by Billy Wilder, ‘Ace In The Hole’ was initially screened in theaters under the name ‘The Big Carnival’. Kirk Douglas stars as Chuck Tatum a washed up journalist who finds himself in rural Albuquerque after being fired from several newspapers. Having burnt bridges and ruined his reputation, he somehow convinces the editor of the local newspaper to hire him temporarily. As luck would have it he ends up staying for about a year during which he laments often at the lack of excitement in the town as evidenced in the quality of stories they cover.
When Chuck and his photographer Herbie leave town to cover a story about a rattlesnake hunt, they chance upon a bigger find when a local, Leo Minosa, gets trapped in a cave while scavenging for Indian artifacts. Since Chuck is the first on the scene he sees this as an opportunity to redeem his dwindling career by getting the scoop at whatever cost. He commandeers the situation by befriending Leo’s wife and father and forcing his way past local police to gain access to the cave and meet Leo.
The film portrays the extent to which media will sometimes go to in pursuit of the story and what role they play in influencing public perception. We see Chuck manipulate the local Sherriff by playing on his need to be reelected and convince him to keep other media away from the scene. He also realizes that Leo’s wife, Lorraine, who plays an integral part in selling the story, also wants to take advantage of the situation to leave her husband. Chuck knows that because he has portrayed her as the worried, supportive wife, her leaving will go against his story so he convinces her to stay in town.
When he learns that it would take a day or so to get Leo out of the cave, Chuck devises a plan to use an alternate route that will give him more time to milk the situation dry. The fact that he is willing to risk another man’s life in order to be able to write more stories and gain fame shows the cut throat nature of the media industry. He goes as far as going into the cave with a camera in order to get the money shot that will sell the story even asking Leo to pose under the circumstances.
Some interesting perspectives come to light about the nature and ethics of journalistic practices and whether these are inherent or taught in the study of journalism. When Herbie states that he went to journalism school, Chuck tells him that he although he didn’t he has learnt more from practice that can’t be taught in a class. “Bad news sells best because good news is no news” is a phrase uttered by Chuck that is similar to the news value of oddity or unusualness e.g man bites dog.
Chuck also points out that the human interest element can’t be ignored. If you have a story about 284 people or 1 million people it will not have the same impact as 1 person who readers will be curious about and will find elements about them to connect with on a one to one level. Chuck’s editor does not question how they got the story when Chuck sends it to him without proper research or verification he just publishes it.
The need to stay relevant by having new and exciting content is seen as the main reason why Chuck and his team continue to manipulate the situation so as to stay ahead of the competition. Later in the movie we find out that Chuck’s stories have caused the paper to start printing two issues per day and increased circulation to 8000 copies per day. When Lorraine commends Chuck on one of his stories, he comments that it’s old news and not worth the paper it’s printed on that would be used to wrap meat later on (something our own President Kenyatta has been quoted saying.)
The sensationalism of the story creates public interest, bringing people from far and wide from the first day they go to print. In a way this has a positive income to an otherwise dead town especially in terms of economic returns to the local businesses with Leo’s wife being the main benefactor. We also see Herbie lose his idealism and join Chuck in pushing the best angle for the story and even chooses to quit his job and partner with him.
We see Chuck go full circle when he realizes that he has gone too far and Leo might die in the cave because they aren’t able to revert to the original plan to save him. He brings a priest to perform last rites for Leo which can also be seen as an attempt to absolve himself. As we watch him come to terms with his actions, it is evident that you cannot separate the person from the profession, his actions as a man and a journalist are intertwined.