Every day, across the media, journalists help people discover, absorb and react to truth. While some reports can be difficult to consider, and others can be a challenge to absorb, most of what reporters prepare is essential to understanding our world. And, thanks to investigative journalists, we often find out what actually happens.
The movie Spotlight is the best on-screen tribute to reporters since Robert Redford investigated Watergate in All the President’s Men almost 40 years ago. Unlike the recent movie Truth – the other journalism film of 2015 – Spotlight actually makes us believe in what it takes for journalists to hunt for news. Director Tom McCarthy celebrates the persistence, commitment and craft the best investigative reporters bring to their work. Even with changes in how people receive and absorb news, the film makes us believe that a journalist’s commitment to truth will prevail.
At The Boston Globe in 2001, Spotlight labels the team of crackerjack reporters assigned to search for truth in the city. When they begin to look at stories of abusive behavior among Catholic priests, they soon realize how controversial their work could be. They recognize the importance of the Church to the city and the public respect for its officials. But the Spotlight reporters also realize that, if they don’t dig beyond what’s comfortable to read, no one may learn what may have occurred. If what the journalists fear actually did happen, they can’t let anything get in their way of sharing this truth with the readers who depend on their stories.
With the depth of a detailed documentary and the energy of a nail-biting thriller, the Spotlight roller coaster starts quickly and never slows. The film’s concise script – by McCarthy and Josh Singer – contains just enough references to flavor to sound local (I especially enjoyed the reference to Stop ‘n’ Shop) and the right degree of shop talk to sound authentic. The film’s visual approach – gritty, direct and natural – also makes us feel we are in the middle of the city in the middle of a story. Showing sensitive restraint as the narrative develops, McCarthy wisely refrains from celebrating what the reporters accomplish. Spotlight works because these professionals don’t necessarily think they are changing the world. They just want to report the news.
The cast is perfection. Mark Ruffalo, always touching and only occasionally predictable, fills his portrayal of reporter Mike Rezendes with surprise. From the curl of his lip to the shadings of his voice, Ruffalo delivers a fresh performance that we haven’t seen before. Michael Keaton’s stunning portrayal of Spotlight leader Walter “Robby” Robinson is filled with warmth and nuance while Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James bring quiet confidence to their portrayals of Spotlight reporters and Len Cariou creates a frightening calm as the Cardinal.
If you share Spotlight with your older teenagers, take the time to talk with them about their reactions to the content. As much as the film focuses on the journalists, the subject matter they report can be difficult to absorb, even though it’s handled with reserve and sensitivity. By daring to reveal such a challenging story, and the people who discovered it, Todd McCarthy creates the year’s most significant film, both for the work it honors and the truth it reveals, no matter how disturbing that story may be.
- Content: High. Not since All the President’s Men has a film so perfectly captured the soul of investigative journalism.
- Entertainment: High. With its striking cast, and impeccable script, Spotlight reveals substantive truth about the work and the results.
- Message: High. With its layered examination of how investigative journalists work, Spotlight teaches us as much about the process as the outcome.
- Relevance: High. At a time when we rely on investigative journalists to reveal the truth, the film’s celebration is timely and essential.
- Opportunity for Dialogue: High. After you share this film with your older teenagers, talk with about the potential impact of investigative journalism, especially when dealing with sensitive issues.
(Spotlight is rated R for “some language including sexual references.” The film runs 128 minutes.)
5 Popcorn Buckets
Celebrating journalism at the movies
For the second time this fall, a movie celebrates what investigative reporters can accomplish when they focus on what people need to know. While the film Truth may have disappointed earlier this fall with its superficial approach, the new movie Spotlight excels in its salute to the tenacity of journalists who deeply care for the work they pursue.
That commitment to truth has been at the core of movies about journalists since the screen began to talk in the late 1920s. One early film – The Front Page – was adapted in 1931 from the Broadway hit by Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur. This delightful story of the rivalry between two Chicago reporters reveals the focus, commitment and energy required to succeed as a journalist, something that hasn’t changed over the years. The popular tale returned to the big screen to great success in 1940 in His Girl Friday – with one of the leads rewritten for Rosalind Russell – and, later, as The Front Page with Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in 1974 and Switching Channels with Burt Reynolds and Kathleen Turner in 1988.
Of celebrated films about journalists, Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, from 1940, looks inside the financial empire of a newspaper publisher while Sweet Smell of Success, from 1957, studies the personal and professional challenges of a newspaper gossip columnist. While both films are, technically, works of fiction, each draws upon popular personalities, including William Randolph Hearst and Walter Winchell. The tattle tales of gossip reporters also have a field day in The Philadelphia Story, from 1940, for which James Stewart won an Oscar as a journalist of questionable scruples, a role that Frank Sinatra played when the story became a musical in 1956 called High Society.
In 1976, Paddy Chayefsky explored the challenges of television news in the classic Network for which he won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. While some of his projections may have felt exaggerated when the movie opened, time has proven him to be quite the visionary. George Clooney’s exploration of the work of Edward R. Murrow, in Good Night, and Good Luck from 2005, reminds us how television journalists can address topics of controversy and social importance, while Geraldine Chaplin’s exaggerated journalist in Robert Altman’s Nashville, from 1975, reveals a cloudy lens through which a reporter observes, and critiques, life in the United States.
Perhaps the most important film about journalism is Alan J. Pakula’s Oscar-winning All the President’s Men from 1976. This detailed examination of the investigative reporting by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein into the Watergate scandal and Richard Nixon’s White House inspired a generation to study journalism. Likewise, Michael Mann’s The Insider (the study of how 60 Minutes investigated big tobacco) and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon (about the famed interviews of a former President by a celebrated talk show host) make the journalist’s work as entertaining and significant as any profession. The fascinating Shattered Glass, from 2003, cautions the enthusiasts about what can happen when a reporter’s quest for fame exceeds the boundaries of truth while A Mighty Heart, from 2007, recreates the tragic journey of a journalist’s disappearance.
Of the fictional accounts of journalists, James Bridges’ The China Syndrome, from 1979, dares to question the ethics of television reporting and the nuclear power industry. Sidney Pollack’s Absence of Malice, from 1981, looks at the temptations that journalists can feel to stretch the truth while the James L. Brooks comedy Broadcast News, from 1987, reveals the ins and outs of a network news operation. Of course, not all movies about journalists work. In 1996, Robert Redford and Michelle Pfeiffer tried to tell the story of a doomed television reporter in the dreadful Up Close and Personal while, in 2009, Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren tried without success to Americanize a look at British journalism in State of Play.
Now, with Spotlight, the important work of investigative journalists returns to cinema glory. And, thank goodness, it feels like a movie about real reporters doing real work.