Obit knows exactly what type of documentary it wants to be. Confidently edited, it is breezy and interesting, not unlike an article you might read in the style section of The New York Times. Director Vanessa Gould steels her camera on the obituaries desk at the Times, and the journalists/editors who write them. The documentary is never grim, however, since the obituary writers all bring a sense of earnest humility with them, as well as a desire to entertain/inform their readers.
The film begins with a statement of purpose. The obituary writers carefully explain that obits are about life, not death. They are an opportunity to celebrate life, and each obituary – no matter its length – are an attempt to give it justice. Gould takes several approaches: she follows Bruce Weber as he writes the obituary for William P. Wilson, a former Kennedy aide who helped him look better on television – a shrewd bit of political theater that arguably helped him win the Presidency. Another obit writer is Margalit Fox, who speaks eloquently and dramatically about her vocation. She brings up the obit for John Fairfax, and the piece was so good it practically reinvented the form (seriously, read it). Gould does not imbue much a narrative, other than Weber’s workday, and the grander point is to heady examine stuff like death and memory. Since the talking heads are also smart Times journalists, the deep stuff arrives with a light touch.
If you go back and look at that Wilson obituary, you will see that it’s 800 words long. Print journalists still care about word counts, and that’s a frequent subject in Obit. The difference between 500 and 800 words, according these men and women, is the difference between interesting and extraordinary. This is the sort of documentary that gets us thinking about our own lives. I found myself asking how long my obituary would be, only to realize I would be lucky if I got 200 words. That’s another thing about Obit: a good life is not necessarily a noteworthy one. The writers know what’s typical – job, marriage, children – and look elsewhere for inspiration. Most of Obit puts us into their mental space, whether as journalists or chroniclers, and the cumulative effect is a newfound appreciation for what they do. Nearly all of them agonize over the idea they could miss a fact, since an obit is the first draft of history.
Of course, the writers already have pre-filed obituaries of famous old people. They mention Steven Sondheim, for example, and former heads of state. The one thing they cannot prepare for is when someone dies unexpectedly (2016 was a rough year for them). There are shots of David Bowie and Prince, of course, plus the writers mention Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman in hushed tones. They are experienced enough so that neither Weber, Fox, nor the others get emotional about the subject they are covering. Still, Obit suggests they care about it deeply, finding honor in a vocation that was previously considered the dregs of journalism assignments. Now that we are all more connected – and there are more people dying than ever before – the obit page is too lively to be dreary. This is the sort of film that would be perfect for a date, or a Mother’s Day outing, simply because there is so much to discuss afterward.