There have been some great journalism films over the years (and some not-so-great ones). They can be tricky, especially when telling a true story. There needs to be a good balance of historical accuracy and interesting characters. In a way, these films are not really about WHAT happened. They are about how the world found out they happened. The characters are the story and the history unfolds itself.
In 2001, a group of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe newspaper got to looking into the Catholic Church and their relation to a number of child molestation cases. Please keep in mind that this was a time period where newspapers were on the cusp of extinction (thanks to the internet) and therefore still trying to show that they had a place in this world of the 24 hour news cycle. This meant not only being different than what was online, but still being different and/or better than a competing newspaper in town. Nowadays, the first person to reach into his pocket and send a tweet is the one who breaks the news. That’s competition between millions. In the heyday of print media, one side of town kept secrets so the other side of town didn’t steal the headline.
The Boston Globe had a featured news division called “Spotlight” that spent months investigating one case or issue. When the Globe gets a new editor, played by Liev Schreiber, he requests an investigation into nefarious acts by Catholic priests and their subsequent cover-up by the Cardinal. The Spotlight team consists of actors Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams, who work through victims’ rights groups, lawyers, judges, and actual victims to uncover a systemic problem that goes well beyond one or two priests.
Keaton, coming off a tough Oscar loss for his Birdman brilliance, rebounds nicely with this no-nonsense, hard-headed role. It might just earn him back-to-back noms. McAdams is a heavy hitter, too. She has grown quite nicely over the last couple years into a serious contender, and she’s gunning for her very first nomination this year. Much praise has befallen Mark Ruffalo for his role, but then again, much praise seems to follow Ruffalo around like his own shadow. With two Oscar nominations in the last five years (for The Kids Are All Right and Foxcatcher), he has become an Academy darling in his own right, and I don’t really get it. I feel like he has played virtually the same tormented character in every film he’s ever been in. In Spotlight, Ruffalo is a go-get-em reporter with a hot head. Again, he puts on his sad face and his “I don’t understand why this is happening” tone of voice and goes to work. I’d bet a week’s pay that he gets his third nomination too. At some point, he’ll have to win one just to satiate the voters. There’s also a great supporting role played by Stanley Tucci – a guy who I’ve said for years doesn’t get enough credit. I’m pulling for him to get a supporting nomination here.
Spotlight deals with a heavy issue. A small group of folks taking on the Catholic Church for child molestation in a town where one in two is a dyed-in-the-wool Catholic is bound to not sit well with some viewers. For years, folks lived in silence and shame until these folks gave them a platform to grieve. For that, I say the Spotlight team are heroes. Those eager to dismiss the charges and those eager to dismiss the historical accuracy of the cover-up are perhaps those eager to promote the standards and practices of the Catholic Church. Spotlight is not a brilliant piece of film-making. But it is quite good, and it is quite important. A social issue does not a Best Picture make, that’s for sure. But bringing a social issue to light via a dramatic film is one way to earn a seat at the nomination table. Will it win? I’m not sure. But if it did, I certainly wouldn’t be upset. Then again, I’m not Catholic.