Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, February 20, 2019

"Obit" shines a spotlight on the New York Times' obituary staff

Journalism’s worst kept secret is the fact that print newspapers are a dying business. Something that has been somewhat of a secret is the directly-correlated dying obituary section.

Vanessa Gould’s “Obit” dives into this world of obituary writing; what many would, undoubtedly, perceive as a dour subject. Gould’s documentary, however, never feels sad or down; instead, it is lively and celebratory of obit writing as a whole.

This documentary focuses in on the team of obit writers at The New York Times, one of the last teams left in the nation. There is no narration except for the team that discusses their shared profession and famous obituaries and what their job means to them, the public, and, especially, the paper itself.

Instead of meditating on the prospect of death, the film explores the way obituaries can survey, convey and preserve a soul. The obit writers themselves display this sense of passion with every line, almost overwhelmingly so - trying to defend the bad rap their job has been given.

A main takeaway from this film is the idea that obituaries are not morbid pieces of writing; instead, they are diverse and full of color, just like the lives they describe. Gould exemplifies the values set forth by these writers with care and respect.

One throughline that “Obit” always finds its way back to is the famous 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debate. However, it does not concern itself with Kennedy or Nixon’s life but instead William P. Wilson, John F. Kennedy’s TV aide who played a key part in Kennedy’s clear television win. Wilson’s obituary is a key example of how a single moment in time can exemplify one’s life and contributions to the world. 

There are more surprises and tales filled in this documentary, but what “Obit” does best of all is make you want to sit down and read about, not the deaths, but the full and happy lives of others.

Grade: A-

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