Reading Between The Lines
There’s an old expression* you’ve probably heard that says, “May you live in interesting times.” We have the misfortune to live in interesting times, particularly when several of the seemingly indestructible institutions of our society are crumbling before our eyes.
One of those institutions is print journalism. After Woodward and Bernstein raked Nixon over the coals in the pages of The Washington Post, the business of investigative journalism became highly sexy. A number of bright and capable people saw a way to speak truth to power, to make a difference, and, what the hell, to maybe win a Pulitzer Prize. We had a few decades of terrific long-form journalism.
But those days could be coming to an end. The media landscape is changing at terrifying speed. Newspaper readership is down. As a result, newspapers are forced to sizably reduce their staffs. They’re forced to make do with less, but how can they invest in long-term investigative reporting when they can barely afford to cover local schools or government the way they should? Adding insult to injury, more and more people are abandoning journalism and flocking to public relations. It makes sense, because according to Pew Research, for every dollar a PR specialist makes, a reporter makes $.65. Speaking truth to power is great and all, but it ain’t gonna pay the rent.
So does that mean that journalism is a sucker’s game, a profession fit only for heartless shills and ineffectual scribblers? Not necessarily. On January 6, 2002, the headline of The Boston Globe read, “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years.” For a predominantly Catholic town like Boston, this news was especially shocking. More stories followed and the uproar was so intense that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, was forced to resign.** It was an astonishing example of the power of journalism, and it’s now celebrated in Tom McCarthy’s excellent film Spotlight.
McCarthy directed and co-wrote the screenplay, along with Josh Singer. They’ve created not only a great newspaper film to rival classics like Zodiac and All The President’s Men, but also a great ensemble piece. We meet the investigative “Spotlight” team led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’arcy James). They report to managing deputy editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). All of them are Boston locals, and all of them are a touch perturbed by the arrival of new editor Martin Baron (Liev Schrieber).
Baron stirs things up even more in a meeting with Robby. He brings up a Globe column about the suspicious handling of alleged child abuse cases by the Boston archdiocese. The story had previously been swept under the rug, but Baron says, “This strikes me as an essential story for a local paper.” It’s ideal material for the Spotlight team. Yet Baron is aware that the Church has connections to virtually his entire staff, whether it’s through schooling, upbringing, or relatives going to Mass three times a week. He knows that real change will only occur if it can be proven that knowledge of decades of abuse was known about at the very top.
The Spotlight team gets to work the old-fashioned way. Knocking on doors. Tracking down elusive court records. Phone call after phone call. Dealing with two lawyers (Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup) who sit on opposite sides of the legal spectrum of handling the Church. But the more the team learns, the worse it gets. Matty discovers a safe house for “retired” priests located around the corner from his home. After hearing the harrowing stories of victims, Sacha can’t bring herself to attend Mass. In an impressive moment, Michael tells Sacha that, even though he’s been a lapsed Catholic for years, he always thought he’d go back. Now he can’t. It’s one of a number of moments that make us feel that lost faith.
McCarthy knows that with the right cast, a good film can become great. Like The Grand Budapest Hotel, nobody shows off at the expense of the film itself. While Spotlight mostly shows its characters working, some small but vivid details flesh them out as human beings. Sacha dotes on her devout grandmother. Michael lives alone in a bachelor’s apartment, but we hear how he’s “working on” his marriage. Things like that show us what we need without taking time from the main narrative. Nobody in the cast strikes a wrong note, and they all support each other wonderfully.
Michael Keaton keeps the cast grounded with a calm and canny performance. The real Walter Robinson is a legendary figure in the Globe mythos, and Keaton has captured his essence. With an extremely subtle Boston accent, Keaton shows us a man that’s friendly and easy-going. But watch his eyes. Robby misses nothing. He’s always thinking, calculating. While his performance isn’t as showy as his role in last year’s Birdman, it’s no less complex and impressive.
Spotlight itself is a masterpiece of grounded filmmaking. There’s no flashy editing or cinematography. There are no contrived character arcs or hacky screenwriting moments. McCarthy knows the real story is absorbing enough. He trusts his audience to keep up, never insulting our intelligence. He’s made a film that shows professionals who are good at their jobs doing their jobs. It’s a bit like Apollo 13 or Master and Commander, where the real fascination comes from watching them simply work.
Since 2002, media is changing, and not for the better. Seemingly reputable media outlets use clickbait headlines to capture page views. More and more, journalism is just poorly disguised advertising for things we don’t need and people we shouldn’t vote for. That doesn’t change the fact that real investigative reporting is just as important now, maybe even more so. While it may end up looking radically different,*** it shares the same spirit, a belief that attention should be paid and truth should be told.
*Fun fact. Many people think this is an ancient Chinese curse. It’s not, since there’s no equivalent expression in the Chinese language. Feel free to use that to win a bar bet.
**But he ended up being transferred to a position in The Vatican, where he remains to this day.
***One of the new frontiers in independent reporting is comics journalism, where reporting is skillfully merged with political cartooning. Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Gorazde and Ted Rall’s After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests are not only terrific examples but also better pure journalism than most of the stuff that’s out there today.