Documentary on New York Times Obituary Journalists Details the Life of Reporting on Death

DIRECTED BY VANESSA GOULD/2017 (U.S. Theatrical Release)


It’s not about death.

So we are told at the outset of this beautifully crafted new documentary on the professional obituary writers of The New York Times. Most such films would save that proclamation for end, a revelation delivered in a tidy bow in service of whomever may have missed the point. With Obit., its immediate; an obligatory disclaimer to be gotten out of the way. More than that, though, it’s a mission statement: Obituaries aren’t simply not about death, they’re about the life in question. It just so happens that the life has ended.

Made up of recent interviews with Times personal, then smoothly interspersed with appropriate b-roll, Obit. is a mesmerizing look at how the art of writing intersects with journalism. Always eloquent and fastidious, and unlike the utilitarian “death notice” pages of most other daily papers, the New York Times‘ obituary section has long maintained its reputation as the great standard bearer. Making it click day in and day out requires of the reporters a very particular blend of investigative grind, writerly panache, and the walking-on-eggshells process of pursuing people who are in mourning to discuss the subject.

If there’s a finer documentary about the art and process of writing, I don’t know what it is.

William McDonald, Bruce Weber and Margalit Fox are three veteran staffers who know this better than anyone. The bluntness of deciding whom among the freshly deceased did and didn’t wield enough prominence to earn a NYT obit (and if so, how long of one) are daily decisions they must face. Walking the line between honoring them and dishing dirt about the dead is another unique regular challenge. In short, they are careful to articulate that their job isn’t to enshrine anyone, but rather to report the truth of the life in question – sometimes to the aching chagrin of family members. Among the last full time obituary personal on staff at any newspaper these days, they might just be the last of their kind.

Inside the New York Times.

That said, the New York Times obituary section isn’t going anywhere. It can’t. To kill it, it must be caught, and to catch it, it would need to slow down. And McDonald, Weber and Fox are not slowing down. They cannot. People, after all, never stop dying.

By focusing on this one topic, this small and quite exclusive group of writers, Obit. gets at a myriad of larger things. Per Gould’s directorial take, the Times obit writers reconcile our world by taking one final comprehensive look back at those who influenced it most profoundly. The film reveals the complexities of the world in all the ways that individuals have impacted it, be they politicians, athletes, inventors, military figures, tastemakers, actors, behind-the-scenes string-pullers, adventurers, or forgotten folks on the fringes of any of the above, and greatly beyond.

Fox, ever articulate, states, “When someone dies, we often say, ‘they’re history.’ What an obit actually does, which I find very compelling and very moving is, it captures the person at the precise point that he or she becomes history.” When you’re an obit writer, she tells us, “You get to interrogate history, and you get to interrogate fate.”, always asking, “How did people get to be where they are? How do people get to be the way they are? How did the world get to be the way it is?” Dare I say, it’s a particularly grandiose summary that gets right at the center of why those of us who can’t not write, write.

The shackling discipline of it all, however, is always a part of it. So often, we’re told, it’s all about “Using as few words as possible to say as much as possible.”; summarizing a notable life’s work in 500 words – half the number I’m giving to this film in this review. We watch as Bruce Weber tackles, researches, pitches and writes the obit for William P. Wilson, the man who crafted the cutting edge media persona of John F. Kennedy, leading, by popular logic, to Kennedy’s eventual electoral victory over Richard Nixon in 1960. At first, there’s some question as to whether Wilson actually warrants this level of attention. That, though, is a decision above Weber’s pay grade. In the meantime, he must plow forward with the article, as the six o’clock press deadline is the ever-looming immovable object for all.

The most unforgettable individual covered, however, has to be Jeff Roth, the lone guy working the Times physical archive. Due to the sheer, overwhelming amount of content amassed in the newspaper’s history, the archive had to be moved to a separate building, years ago. Roth, with a vaguely antisocial demeanor and having been professionally banished, can’t help but remind one of Mike Judge’s Milton, the character who was fired long ago but somehow still draws a check, stationed at his desk in the lower depths. Except, Roth is actually indispensable as the only living soul with a clue as to how to navigate the vast and comically cluttered archive.

The camera follows Roth as he saunters through the tight corridors of of antique file cabinets, slinging open random drawers which surely must be supernaturally extending longer than the depth of their housing. Roth knows his stuff inside and out, yellowing and brittle paper and all; but in a place like this, there’s always, always more to know. His bemusement at the forever-mystery of everything that’s in there is hilarious. “The people who created the system are all dead.”, he says. So he must spend his days trying to crack that as well. When the NYT obituary journalists make the trek to him for their research, which they do most days, Roth is there to help them in whatever archeological dig has been sprung upon them.

Yes, the writers prepare advance obits for certain celebrities (specifically mentioned in this regard are Stephen Sondheim, Valerie Harper, Jane Fonda, and Meadowlark Lemon) who’ve gotten up in years, but the staff must also be at the ready for the major, unpredictable culturally seismic deaths. At a moment’s notice, the loss of Michael Jackson, Robin Williams, or Phillip Seymour Hoffman rock our world. The journalists have mere hours to drop everything, and cobble together and then post their lives, their impacts, their stories online and then in print. The internet, you know, knows everything but patience.

If there’s a finer documentary about the art and process of writing, I don’t know what it is. The virtues of the careful alchemy of writerly disciple, journalistic accuracy and knowledge of one’s resources is laid out and presented beautifully. This is surely one of the great documentaries of the year. It’s theatrical run, never extending beyond New York City, was tragically short. This fine new blu-ray from Kino Lorber, though, helps quite a bit in making up for that.

Even as it’s “not about death”, Obit. can’t help but have something to do with death. (As Sergio Leone would put it). Provocative, engaging, and fully invigorating, Vanessa Gould has crafted a film for the archives. (May it never be misfiled!) Obit. deserves to live on and on.