Why ‘Spotlight’ is a revolution in film

Few journalism movies have focused on the Sisyphean tasks that make up investigative reporting. The Oscar-winning ‘Spotlight’ showcases it all.

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in 'Spotlight'. (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films)

Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll in ‘Spotlight’. (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films)

Update (Feb. 29, 2015): Spotlight has won the Academy Award for Best Picture.

There is an extended scene in Spotlight in which two journalists walk through the halls of the Boston Globe and pass through one doorway after another. There is no indication of where they are coming from or where they are going, so it’s difficult to tell if they are progressing or simply collecting steps. Director Tom McCarthy liked the way the scene conveyed the labyrinthine building, but, in a pinch, it also acts as a metaphor for journalism, an industry built on drudgery, in which progression is not always clear, but steps are collected with the expectation of something more than nothing.

Spotlight recounts how the Boston Globe’s investigative department uncovered a history of sex abuse in the local Catholic Church, a discovery that reverberated across the globe (the other one) and won them the Pulitzer in 2003. Critics are already throwing the Best Picture Oscar at Spotlight, having compared it to the cinematic gold standard of journalism films, Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 All the President’s Men. And they are similar. Both films have a low-key aesthetic and both revolve around everymen journalists taking on an institution, not to mention the Bradlee connection (members of the family edited both papers). “We all live within the shadow of that film, on some level, and I was well acquainted with it,” McCarthy says. “What you try to do is just forget about it.”

Or not. Because perhaps the most compelling aspect of Spotlight is also the most compelling aspect of its predecessor: work. Here, the journalists—Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes and Rachel McAdams’s Sacha Pfeiffer among them—are shown constantly toiling, interviewing multiple people multiple times, studying spreadsheets and lists, reading, scribbling notes and then actually writing.

Few journalism movies have focused on the Sisyphean tasks that make up investigative reporting (one of them, The Paper, also stars Spotlight’s Michael Keaton).The journalism genre predictably leans toward more visually appealing broadcast journalism (as in the recent film Truth, about 60 Minutes). It is TV that often best represents journalistic toil precisely because it has the time to do it—see David Simon’s The Wire, or Lou Grant, an offshoot of The Mary Tyler Moore Show in which Ed Asner plays a diligent newspaper editor.

Spotlight’s director did not begin with a plans to represent journalistic drudgery. McCarthy says he simply wanted to put the story at the forefront—and not “to romanticize it or sensationalize it or glorify it.” He cites as his inspiration Sidney Lumet’s 1982 courtroom drama The Verdict, which he considers an “economical and efficient” triumph. Like Pakula, McCarthy worked closely with the real reporters, who were “constantly vetting” the language, and some other stuff too. “Sacha was like, ‘No romance,’ ” McCarthy says.

The prototype for the modern journalism movie is the 1931 screwball comedy The Front Page, based on the 1928 play by two ex-journalists. The electric dialogue and pace set the template, says Matt Ehrlich, co-author of Heroes and Scoundrels: The Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture: “Very loud, very fast, everything happening in a sort of rat-a-tat-tat machine gun style.” Ehrlich says this approach came from the journalists’ “love-hate relationship” with the industry. “The reporters are absolute sleazebags, they do horrible things,” he says. “At the same time The Front Page makes journalism seem very exciting, and they do get the big scoop.”

All the President’s Men was considered at the time of its release to be a throwback to The Front Page; it has since won more respect. “These two young reporters doggedly pursuing the story that helped contribute to the downfall of Richard Nixon, that was the kind of thing journalists could point to and say: ‘This is what our profession is really about.’ ”

What it’s about is work. “Most people know the facts of Watergate, but they don’t know how they were obtained,” director Pakula said in 1976. The thrill of All the President’s Men came from turning the audience into investigative journalists along with its stars. Spotlight persuades Internet-era audiences journalists can be stars in the first place.


Why ‘Spotlight’ is a revolution in film

  1. The author forgets to note the subtextual irony that the movie represents.

    The Catholic Church will outlive the scandal. Well because it is the Catholic Church, and it was built to last.

    Journalism, however, will not outlive the scandal. Journalism, for the most part is dying, as the media is increasingly controlled by the the oligarchs, the 1%, and the banksters, and most of what goes for news is just a PR pitch to a producer or editor. And like with the banksters and government, where there is a revolving door between the government and the financial sector, there is also a revolving door between the government and media.

    The modern media environment is an ever increasing world of public relations and propaganda.

    • WSIsYw, Truer words were never spoken……..

  2. Gawd I had to google sisyphean. I enjoyed this movie. Makes you think about who can and should pay for the sisyphean work to uncover stories of public interest. And I dont mean stories that are of interest to the public. I mean real investigations.
    I loved Robyn Doolittle’s book Crazy Town and The Globe and Mail investigations into the Ford Family. But journalists took a beating and had to defend themselves up against the ropes. Those at the Toronto Star in particular were the fairer game. Who can afford that?
    I hold out hope that good jounalism will continue. It is needed as a public service. Maybe the government needs to fund and promote jounalistic outlets. So go ahead and use public funds to subsidize long term projects. Create the elite of the elite of journalism. They have professional standards.

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