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.

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