Investigative Reporting Goes To The Movies

This afternoon, I went to a screening of Spotlight, the new Thomas McCarthy movie about the investigative team at the Boston Globe which broke the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002, reporting for which the paper ultimately won the Pulitzer Prize.

The subject matter is difficult to hear, but the cast and production team  of the film do an excellent job in showing the process by which the journalistic sausage is made.  It’s not easy, or glamorous.  It’s tedious, time-consuming work which can test the patience of anyone. There are lots of phone calls, meetings, and knocks on doors with potential sources which in many cases are met with outright hostility.  The role of the courts and the paper’s ability to get previously sealed but ultimately incriminating documents cannot be overstated. Though the film focuses on the Globe’s initial report about John Geoghan – the rogue priest whose misdeeds the paper is trying to expose – and the Catholic Church’s institutional failings in dealing with the Geoghan problem, the movie, as well as the Globe’s own reporting demonstrate that this was a wider systemic problem within the church.

Spotlight is the best movie about journalism since All the President’s Men, a film to which it can trace a direct and indirect line of descent.  Both stories and movies involve Ben Bradlee (the father in All the President’s Men, his namesake son in Spotlight) and deal with the editorial, legal and ethical dilemmas facing journalists. The sense of tension and paranoia is greater in All the President’s Men, but that was because the stakes and nature of the wrongdoing were so much higher. In Spotlight, the team’s biggest concern is keeping their journalistic enterprise a secret from the rest of the newspaper as well as the broader community at large, due to the sensitive and ultimately explosive nature of the subject material. The other thing the film captures well is the slow but gradually growing sense of horror and revulsion at the scope and scale of the scandal that the team is uncovering, and the little ways in which their findings begin to affect their personal lives.  I wouldn’t be surprised if seeing it on the big screen forces some of the people who lived the story in some capacity or other to revisit those feelings, whether they want to or not.

All in all, it’s an excellent film well worth watching.  I’ll be curious to see how it fares during awards season early next year.

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