Saturday, November 7, 2015


 4.5 / 5 

Movies and newspaper journalism don't typically mix well.  Being a newspaper reporter -- a job I was fortunate to have for a time many years back -- is not a glamorous job, and the careful and methodical work of an investigative journalist is even less movie-ready.  More than that, despite the romantic insistence of some of the best movies about newspapering, journalists with the looks and charm of Robert Redford, Sally Field and Cary Grant rarely populate newsrooms.

Director Tom McCarthy's film Spotlight is, then, an impressive accomplishment.  OK,  yes, it has some pretty darned good-looking people in its cast, but they're not given the polish of Hollywood; Spotlight is a determinedly straightforward, no-frills look at how journalism worked just before the whole industry imploded, and McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer capture the confusing, confounding messiness of reporting with intense authenticity.

Spotlight throws its audience into the newsroom of The Boston Globe without commentary.  There are no pat introductions, no basic primers into the way things work.  But the movie also wastes no time in getting to the meat of the story: The newspaper has a new editor, Marty Baron (played by Liev Schreiber, looking as grown-up and tired as most everyone else in the film), a Jewish outsider from The Miami Herald who thinks the paper has been a little soft on a potentially interesting story about alleged child abuse by Catholic priests.

Less sure about the approach is Ben Bradlee Jr. (played by John Slattery).  It's never mentioned in the movie, but Bradlee's father was the executive editor of the Washington Post during that paper's Watergate investigations, so he knows a little something about the way a newspaper has to be absolutely sure of the stories it prints.

Spotlight is led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), who oversees a small team of reporters, including Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James).  Now, let's be clear, Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and Broadway musical actor James aren't exactly un-beautiful people, but Spotlight makes them entirely believable as low-paid, high-intensity print journalists.

The Spotlight team isn't quite sure what they're working on or how deep it goes -- but as Baron insists that they take it further, sometimes over Bradlee's objections, the story begins taking on a life of its own.  They meet victims, broken and pained men who can't get past what happened to them, and in some of the most raw and surprising scenes in the movie, the men share their stories in explicit detail.

Still, it's not enough.  Baron wants them to go further, to get to the core of the story -- how Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law not only knew that priests were abusing children, but that the scope of the crimes was larger and more pervasive than anyone imagined, and that the church actively covered up the allegations.

Spotlight, with little embellishment or excess flair, grapples with some of the toughest questions, not just of the scandal, but of the ethics of journalism: Does the newspaper have its own motives?  Does it have culpability, given evidence that emerges that the newspaper's staff knew of the allegations and did nothing about them?  What of the newspaper's role as champion and supporter of its city?  What responsibility does it have to protect the identities and integrity of its sources?

Yet Spotlight isn't a movie about the ethics of journalism, exactly, and it doesn't make a particularly significant effort to be irate about the abuse scandal itself -- not, at least, until its final title cards, which describe the genuinely disquieting global scope of priestly abuse.

 Spotlight is instead aiming its sights higher than being an issues film: It wants to be a good story well-told, and in that it succeeds admirably.  It captures both the intent and the spirit of "old-fashioned" journalism as well as any movie ever has, and by doing so it underscores what's missing from today's ubiquitous online media -- the hard, tenacious work of reporting, the process of checks and balances within the system of professional journalism, and the impressive dedication of traditional reporters.

Throughout Spotlight, there's a persistent undercurrent of the threat from online journalism. The story takes place in 2001 and 2002, just as the Internet was becoming ubiquitous, and when the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, become a key plot point, the threat from the terrorists is not quite as overwhelming to The Boston Globe as the threat from the huge billboard for "AOL Anywhere" that sits right next to its office building.

Journalism was one of the many elements of life that changed that day, but Spotlight captures one of the last epic stories about newspapering, a story that was taking place just as the world was being forever altered.  Though the movie is made with a certain emotional reserve, Spotlight offers an unexpectedly compelling reminder for what we have lost with the decline of print journalism. In its final scenes, huge presses run ink across paper, the newspaper is cut and packaged into bundles, loaded on to trucks, and delivered around the city.  At the same time, on the same day, everyone will learn the story in the same way -- by reading it in the newspaper.

As those trucks fly by, "Robby" Robinson watches them from his car.  There's a little gleam in his eye, he might cry.  And he might well have reason to do exactly that.  Yes, he has put to bed a great story, one that's going to have ramifications on an entirely religion for decades to come.  But that's not why the tears are in his eyes; he's watching the end of American newspapering.  Spurred by 9/11's need to tell us everything we needed to know and to do it now, newspapers couldn't compete.  In those trucks, Robby is watching his future roll away.

Spotlight may be about the way the Catholic Church was brought down by a team of doggedly persistent, fiercely intelligent and dedicated reporters -- but it's also about the way the newspaper industry brought itself down, how it never found a way to adapt, and instead ceded its power to the news flashy high-tech thing.

In one of his previous films, The Station Agent, Tom McCarthy brought a similar clear-eyed melancholy to his subject; he refused to be wistful, insisted on letting scenes play out the way they should.  With The Station Agent, he created one of the most lovely eulogies to the sort of life adults aren't really allowed to live anymore, independent and free and solitary.  In Spotlight he does the same -- Spotlight isn't an epitaph for newspapers, it's just a reminder that newspapers have an important role to play, that they are staffed by trained professionals who believe strongly in what they do, and perhaps its a hopeful movie in a way, a reminder that trained and educated journalists can affect change in a major way.  The good ol' fashioned newspaper(wo-)man still has a vital role in today's society.

This is what Sarah Palin dubbed the "lame-stream media": Professionals who watch out for misdeeds, who examine the dark sides of the world -- religious figures, politicians, law enforcement officers are all fair game -- and turn a spotlight on them.  This is the kind of journalism that scares unprepared, ill-advised public figures because, as the movie shows, its practitioners are trained to be thorough and methodical, to be objective in their writing even when they can't be objective in their personal views.

No wonder they're being pushed aside.  Spotlight is a sobering reminder that their work remains vital, that it's necessary, even in the post-AOL Anywhere age.

Viewed Nov. 7, 2015 -- ArcLight Hollywood


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