My first exposure to the world of tabloid and sensationalistic journalism came when I was in 5th or 6th grade, when shows like A Current Affair and Entertainment Tonight, and “journalists” like Geraldo Riviera began to rise to prominence. Even back then, at that young age, I knew these programs weren’t on the up and up, and yet I found them fascinating to watch, what with the lurid subject matter (it seemed like every episode of A Current Affair had at least one sex scandal), dramatic reenactments, and pleas to the viewer’s emotions and sense of outrage.
Of course, now we’re living with the repercussions of such programming. Even “respected” news outlets like CNN resort to outrageous tactics and “in your face” techniques — all of which are intended more for the boosting of ratings than the dissemination of truth. What does it say when The Daily Show — a satirical program if ever there was one — is trusted by many as a more legitimate news source than, say, anything on Fox.
All of this serves as the backdrop for Crónicas, the latest film from Latin America to garner attention and critical acclaim worldwide (it doesn’t hurt that the film boasts the talents of folks involved in Amores Perros, City of God, and Y Tu Mamá También).
John Leguizamo plays Manolo Bonilla, the star reporter for One Hour With the Truth, a tabloid news program that is popular throughout Latin America. Bonilla has developed something of a reputation for his skills to break stories, be they cover ups or confessions, and his latest story has brought him to Ecuador in pursuit of the “Monster of Babahoyo,” a serial killer that has raped and murdered almost 150 children to date.
While covering the funeral of the killer’s latest victims, Bonilla prevents the crowd from lynching Vinicio Cepeda, a hapless salesman who became distracted by all of the commotion and accidentally ran over a child. Charged with involuntary manslaughter, Cepeda is terrified of the other prisoners, especially since the boy’s father has already tried to kill him. Recognizing Bonilla from the television, Cepeda begs him to do a story about his case so that he might get released. In exchange, Cepeda promises to give Bonilla some special information that might lead him to the serial killer.
It seems like an obvious set-up, and Bonilla’s partners are deadset against it, but Bonilla is attracted by the possibility of breaking the story of the year, and becoming a hero as a result. Convinced that he can get the truth out of Cepeda, his already dubious journalistic methods become even moreso, as he begins manipulating Cepeda and the facts.
Those expecting a situation a la The Usual Suspects, or your typical serial killer fare that digs into the darker side of human nature, might be in for a disappointment. In fact, the film is surprisingly tame in that regard. Crónicas does bear some similarities to The Usual Suspects, namely in the structure of the interviews between the arrogant Bonilla and the timid Cepeda, and the way the power constantly shifts between the two of them.
However, Crónicas is not about sudden twists that leave your jaw on the ground, that completely subvert the viewer’s expectations. It’s not about stunning, disturbing insights into the psychopathic mind. Rather, it’s about the lengths to which someone will go to get the truth, even if it means sacrificing the truth to do so.
Whether it’s flouting police authority and going behind their backs, coercing grieving families in order to get “the perfect shot,” or even sleeping with his producer, Bonilla’s attempts to uncover the “truth” become shadier as the film progresses. That is, until his work catches up to him, throwing everything he has accomplished back in his face and making him choose between keeping silent — a cardinal sin for a journalist — or admitting guilt and destroying his career.
In a day and age where news agencies stoop increasingly lower to garner the attention of an increasingly cynical public, and as a result, often conveniently sidestep the truth — remember the recent CBS debacle involving Bush’s military record? — Crónicas comes awfully close to the “truth” of the matter. It’s a reminder that we, as consumers and citizens, must be just as vigilant concerning the truth as those who claim to be reporting it. And when “truth” and “entertainment” are mixed as they often are in this media-saturated society of ours, the truth is always the first one to suffer for the sake of ratings.
Crónicas was released on DVD by Palm Pictures on 11/8/2005. More info, including a trailer, can be found on the film’s homepage.