Directed by Vanessa Gould
Obit. tells the story of the journalists behind the obituary section of The New York Times. These pieces are written with more flare and attention than the typical obituary, and through interviews we learn a little about how much the authors of each piece carefully put into these often 800 words or less, celebrating the life of a recently deceased public figure.
Not everyone covered in the obituary of the Times is world-famous, but they’ve likely had a dramatic impact on the world which has affected you in some way. While they do cover the deaths of big-name celebrities, they also write about Thomas W. Ferebee, the pilot who dropped the atomic bomb over Hiroshima in 1944 or the man that helped Kennedy win the 1960 election because of how he prepared him for the first televised debate.
These obituaries celebrate the achievements of both the known and unknown, and they’re written with such careful precision and often under quick deadlines. Over the course of the documentary, we follow the author of one obituary as he races up against the deadline and prepares to fight with his editor, hoping to bypass the traditional lede of an obituary in favor of something more creative.
Obituaries can be very formulaic, just a template copied to give us certain information, but these journalists write them like you might write a profile on any public figure. It’s not just about the person’s name, their age and how they died, it’s about how they lived their life and what they did to deserve a mention in the New York Times.
The documentary covers the details of the job for these particular journalists to the historical context of obituaries and times when a particular celebrity’s untimely death causes them to race against the clock to publish the obit for the next day’s paper. For older celebrities and people of note, the paper has pre-written obituaries ready to go on notice. It’s not morbid, it’s just the job.
The journalists interviewed all come across as very sage. They’re reserved but passionate when it comes to fighting for their story. They take a keen interest in very specific details of a deceased’s life because they want to accurately reflect this person’s entire life in just a handful of short paragraphs. When one writer mistakenly says that the deceased’s uncle was a Democratic congressman when he really a Republican congressman, he laments the mistake but shrugs it off. There are so many facts to verify that sometimes this is bound to happen.
Other journalists will tell us about the threats and angry calls they’ve received from relatives of the deceased. Their job, however, is to objectively present the article as opposed to glamorizing the dead. The only glamorization of the deceased is in the selection for publication in the pages of the Times.
One writer will compare their job to triage. There are so many dead who deserve recognition, but not all of them will receive it. Later in the documentary, these journalists will try to answer a question in regards to the meaning of living a noteworthy life. One of them wonders if he’s done enough with his life, and others confirm that writing obituaries does encourage them to thing more about their own mortality.
The film ends with one writer making a joke that no matter what you do, you’re still going to die. Then he looks away from the camera, but we hold on him, as if watching his mood sour with morbid thoughts implied by the shot length though possibly only assumed because of what we project onto him in this moment. With somber music, we fade out.
But then we jump into a fast-paced instrumental with a montage of images covering large swaths of time, as if to quickly point out all these noteworthy moments and creation throughout life but only in brief glimpses, suggesting the fleeting nature of it all.
What we’re celebrating is life itself. Even as these are articles about the dead, the least important part of each article is the mention of their death. The Times focuses on the beautiful details a life lived and a life worth commenting on.
Up Next: Sullivan’s Travels (1941), Silence (2016), The Band Wagon (1953)