Film works ‘to make a case for journalism’

Ronnie Bullock packs heat while he’s chasing a big news story.

He’s got enough groovy gadgets — a ballpoint pen that’s also a hidden camera! — to turn Woodward, Bernstein and MacGyver simultaneously green with envy.

Job stress? Not today, thanks.

“Oh boy,” Bullock (Atlanta native Eric Roberts) practically yawns in the passenger seat of a car stopped for speeding in a small Alabama town in “Deadline,” a new movie premiering here Wednesday night. Viewers get the feeling this veteran journalist’s been in way worse pickles before — and survived them all.

Probably enjoyed them more, too, if his disdainful assessment of the fast approaching, hostile-to-big-city-media lawman counts for anything:

“We got a cop with a big hat.”

Uh, who says it’s so tough being a newspaper reporter these days?

Actually, “Deadline” does. A contemporary tale about fictional Nashville Times reporters’ efforts to reopen a cold case murder with obvious racial overtones, the movie also lands plenty of punches about how the Internet, bad economy and increasingly polarized politics have weakened newspapers. And why it’s more important than ever that they fight back with aggressive investigative reporting.

“Mark is absolutely trying to make a case for journalism,” said “Deadline” director Curt Hahn, referring to screenwriter Mark Ethridge, a former Charlotte Observor managing editor whose novel is the basis for the film. “As he frequently says, ‘Who is going to still do these things if [newspapers] don’t?’”

Roberts has his own thoughts on the subject. First things first, though: What’s the one-time Oscar and three-time Golden Globe nominee with the nonstop acting career (40-plus TV or film projects slated this year and next, reports the Internet Movie Database) doing appearing in this smaller, independent movie that’s literally going on the road for a series of benefit screenings held in conjunction with local newspapers? (Wednesday’s event, sponsored by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, benefits VOX Teen Communications, which teaches Atlanta teens journalism and publishes a magazine written by them).

“One, it’s the content of the story,” Roberts said by phone from New Orleans. Another reason: His wife and manager, Eliza’s, commitment to identifying worthy projects each year where they can work with younger or smaller filmmakers.

Still ... what explains how he made being an aging newspaper reporter look so authentic and still, well, fun?

“Basically I just played it as a culmination of all the journalists I know and like,” Roberts said. “What they all have in common is they all act like they can’t be bothered till they can be.”

Like most celebrities, Roberts has endured tough media focus over the years. People are always going to scrutinize you more closely when your younger sister, Julia Roberts (or, “Julie,” as he routinely refers to her), is America’s film sweetheart and an Oscar winner to boot.

So why not take this golden opportunity to get even with the Fourth Estate by making his character, Bullock, a thoroughly unlikable sort? Says Ethridge, whose novel was “inspired by” an actual cold case he once covered along with a real-life gun-toting version of Ronnie Bullock: “Bullock is a redneck in the movie, but he’s no racist. It’s an important, but hard distinction to play. And Eric, I thought, did it perfectly.”

The subject matter — race relations, technology-induced myopia — was simply too important to trivialize, Roberts suggests.

Still, he knows enough not to take himself too seriously. And all it took was him losing an Oscar to realize as much. Before his nominated role in “Runaway Train,” Roberts did like other serious young thespians, waiting for the “perfect” part to come along.

“I really got to love it like this in 1986 when they gave my Oscar to [“Cocoon’s”] Don Ameche, and I said ‘I don’t want to wait to make a movie every year or 18 months anymore,” Roberts said with obvious delight. “Now I will do anything, anywhere if there’s one good thing about it — the script, the director, if it’s got a great wardrobe!”

Ironically, given Atlanta’s major presence as a filming site, he’s never shot a movie in his hometown. He likely won’t be there Wednesday because of work commitments; but his role as a newspaper reporter carries a little extra resonance here.

Growing up across the street from Grady High School (which he also attended), Roberts recalls The Atlanta Constitution being a constant presence on neighborhood stoops.

“I stole that paper every day from somewhere and brought it home to [Dad] at his request,” Roberts hooted. “He always read it.”

“Deadline” Atlanta premiere

6 p.m. (red carpet arrivals), 7 p.m. (movie screening) Wednesday. A Q&A with director Curt Hahn, screenwriter Mark Ethridge and some cast members follows the movie. Regal Atlantic Station Stadium 16, 216 19th St. N.W., Atlanta. $25-$250 (Higher sponsorship level contributions also include a 5 p.m. VIP reception at Strip Steak & Sushi.) Proceeds benefit Vox Teen Communications.