“Spotlight” Shines a Beacon on the Value of Good Journalism


Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)

In January, 2002, journalists at the Boston Globe published a lengthy exposé of the long-term abuse of children by Catholic priests in the Boston Archdiocese. Though the Catholic Church had long denied that it had a problem with pedophiles, claiming that the occasional molestation cases were merely the results of actions by individual priests, the depth of the reporting in the Globe‘s series proved otherwise, and led to a global realization that the Church had long covered up a culture of sexual abuse of minors, spawning articles in publications far and wide. Dawning horror rightly followed, and we have seen, since then, a lessening of the prestige and infallibility at the root of the Church’s power. Less than a year after the first article ran in the Globe, Boston’s Cardinal Law – once seen as infallible, himself – resigned. True, he quickly found a home at the Vatican, but for him to step down in disgrace in a majority Catholic city speaks to the power of the press … at that time, anyway (ah, 2001 was so long ago …).

And now we have a film about this epic piece of journalism, directed by master independent filmmaker Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), who actually starred as a reporter, himself (albeit an unscrupulous one), in Season 5 of HBO’s “The Wire.” With great patience and attention to detail, McCarthy chronicles the hard work done by the four-person investigative team known as “Spotlight.” The look and feel of the film mirrors the day-to-day drudgery of the research these men (and one woman) needed to go through in order to dig up the necessary materials for the piece. The procedural nature of McCarthy’s direction is almost pedestrian – this is unsexy stuff, folks – which would qualify as a negative if that aesthetic weren’t so essential to this particular movie. From the way the journalists dress to the no-nonsense camera work that refuses to draw attention to itself, this is quality filmmaking that places the facts and emotions of the story front and center. The only thing I didn’t like was Howard Shore’s score, which was mostly distracting and not at all needed; these scenes require no soundtrack.

The ensemble cast is excellent. Michael Keaton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Infinitely Polar Bear), Rachel McAdams (Southpaw) and Brian d’Arcy James (“Smash“) all star as the members of the Spotlight team, while John Slattery (“Mad Men“) and Liev Schreiber (“Ray Donovan“) are the editors. Schreiber is Marty Baron, the first Jewish editor of the Globe, a fact stated a few times in the film and used to imply (by his detractors) that, of course, this man would have it in for the Church (it’s Baron’s idea to pursue the topic in the first place). Boston, like most big cities, merely masquerades as a cosmopolitan place; at its heart, it’s as insular as any small town, and as protective of its own. Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia) shows up as a lawyer representing the victims, and, as an ethnic Armenian, drives this point home again: only an outsider would be able to take such a hard look at the facts.

Spotlight is a movie that not only tells us the important story of how one driven group of people took down a major institution, but also makes the case for why journalism matters in a democracy. As we have seen since 2001, our major newspapers have suffered major decreases in subscriptions and have yet to find a truly new way forward – in terms of earning revenue – in the digital age of the internet and social media. Clickbait is the word of our day, and while the Church’s abuse scandal is just as lurid as any headline you might see in your Facebook “trending” feed, the reason why the Globe’s reporters were able to make such a difference is because they had the full support of their superiors, who at that time could afford to pay the salaries of four people dedicated, over many months, to uncovering the truth about one topic. As we move forward, it’s worth considering the price we pay, as a society, for the free content we access every day online. Truth is worth paying for.

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