New York — The life of the wire service scribe has, traditionally, been to toil in anonymity. Christian Bale, however, is far from anonymous.
In The Promise, Bale stars as an Associated Press reporter in Constantinople in the early days of World War I, and at the onset of the mass killings and deportations of Armenians carried out by Ottoman Empire. He's not the central figure in the movie; that's Oscar Isaac's Armenian medical student. But as a brash speak-truth-to-power journalist firing out powerfully worded dispatches, he's pivotal in bringing attention to the atrocities against the Armenians.
Watch the trailer here:
The killings of up to 1.5 million Armenians in Ottoman Turkey during and after World War I is considered by genocide scholars to have been the first genocide of the 20th century. Turkey denies a genocide occurred and argues that the death toll among Armenians was more limited in scale and resulted from civil unrest and war, not deliberate policy.
Bale's portrayal in the movie is almost certainly the most starry, most heroic and most hard-drinking big-screen depiction of the AP in its 171-year history. But if the AP has seldom received its silver-screen close-up, it has at least struck the jackpot in the Oscar-winner Bale. Not only is he one of the most respected actors in film, he's just a touch more glamorous than most in the AP newsroom.
His character is a composite but it has roots in real history — a history the makers of The Promise were well acquainted with.
"The Associated Press was extremely active during the period of genocide and much of what Americans knew of what was happening was due to the reporting of brave Associated Press journalists," said producer Eric Esrailian. "You hear about all this stuff about fake news and people maligning journalists. Then you go back to this era where what we knew about World War I was because of journalists."
Though the AP had a firm no-byline policy until 1921, its Constantinople correspondent in 1915 — the time of the film — was J. Damon Theron. His dispatches from that era (two years before the U.S. entered World War I) are still striking for their forcefulness. In April 1915, the AP reported on the massacre of 800 of the villagers in one Turkish region and 720 in another. June brought a report on the increased presence of German officers.
And in September 1915 came an especially strongly worded story that opened: "By virtue of a total suppression of all news on the subject, the Turkish Government has succeeded in throwing an impenetrable wall over its actions toward all Armenians." The report later noted that censors were prohibiting dispatches.
"The tendency of the Ottoman government either to deny altogether that the Armenians are being persecuted, or give its acts a too obviously artificial basis and character, would have but one result, namely, to indicate that it is both ashamed and afraid to let the truth be known," read the report, which ran in the New York Times.
'A moment in journalism that holds lessons'
For the filmmakers of The Promise, it's a moment in journalism that holds lessons — the need for a full-throated press — for today.
"Like climate change," said Bale. "There's this distraction where there's people trying to pretend there really is some debate about it still, as if there is some valid other point of view that hasn't been completely discredited. 'Oh, no, we must consider both sides.' I'm sure for most stories, it's absolutely correct to show both sides, or more, to the story."
Bale met with scholars and studied journalists from the time, narrowing in on Lincoln Steffens, a celebrated muckraker (the Progressive Era journalists who advocated against corruption). Director Terry George also encouraged Bale to look to Christopher Hitchens to capture a reporter's "strong appetites."
"The Armenian genocide and what went on was one of the most heavily reported events of World War I in the United States," said George. "It came at a crucial moment in journalism when it switched from second-hand, staccato-style reporting to the muckrucker movement, which was a movement into commentary."
The movie, George added, "is a salute to the AP for sure."