Blog Directory CineVerse: The power of good journalism meets the merits of a mighty movie

The power of good journalism meets the merits of a mighty movie

Thursday, April 16, 2020

It's hard to compete with "All the President's Men" as an exemplary newspaper movie that defines a generation and the time in which it was made. But "Spotlight," released in 2015 but set in the early 2000s, is deserving of that praise. Why? Read on for a summary of our discussion points shared during last night's CineVerse meeting on Zoom (to listen to our recorded discussion, click here).

What’s unique about this film as a suspense thriller, procedural, or newspaper movie?

  • Although there’s a lot of reporter movement and activity shown, it relies on very little action: Most of the plot involves phone calls, face-to-face interviews, and meetings.
  • Other thrillers typically include elements like chases, explosions, sex, and violence to keep your attention.
  • The villains are mostly offscreen. Other than Cardinal Law and a brief scene early in the film of an accused priest, we don’t see the 90 or so priests alleged to have abused these children. They remain enigmatic, elusive, and mysterious.
  • Because this was such a big story reported on back in 2002, many viewers already know how it begins and ends—which is a rarity among films of this type
  • Some have said “Spotlight” has a documentary-like feel to it, as if we’re witnessing history unfolding.

Even though the plot relies on phone conversations, interviews, and little traditional action, why and how is “Spotlight” so gripping and suspenseful?

  • We already know the resolution ahead of time, yet it’s how the characters get to that point that is fascinating. Those who already know how it’s going to end are forced to pay attention to the details—how the journalists pieced together the puzzle.
  • Having an ensemble cast, in which each of the four “Spotlight” journalists roughly get equal time without overshadowing each other, also helps rivet our focus and force us to pay close attention to each person’s discoveries that help get the story for the Boston Globe. Usually, the rule of thumb for a good movie is that you need strong character development. Here, we learn very little about each of the four reporters or their personal lives, but it doesn’t detract from our interest in and enjoyment of the film.
  • Like “All the President’s Men” before it, “Spotlight” also does a fantastic job of accurately depicting how reporters work to get the story, how meticulous their standards have to be, and the sleuthing skills required of these individuals. It gives us a rare and authentic look inside this profession, which audiences find intriguing and revealing.
  • To the film’s credit, we aren’t given scenery-chewing, scene-stealing soapboxing, soliloquy-delivering, or melodramatic acting or dialogue. By employing a more subtle, nuanced approach, the filmmakers and actors let the development of this newspaper story tell the tale rather than focus predominantly on any one character or subplot.
  • Additionally, the score is low-key; instead of submerging the story in musical bombast, it employs quieter, more brooding tones and cues that delicately amplify the mood and ratchet up the tension.

What themes stand out in “Spotlight”?

  • Getting to the truth requires lots of hard, meticulous work and patience, and the risks of failure and backlash are high. This story wasn’t broken in a day, week, or month. It took years to get to the full truth and fully tell this story.
  • Teamwork pays dividends. Here, no one Spotlight teammate is more important than any other, and all share a common goal: getting the story and telling it truthfully.
  • Journalism matters in this ever-changing, increasingly digital, and ultra-politicized world. “Spotlight’s” message, even though the plot concerns events that occurred nearly 20 years ago, resonates today: The fourth estate serves an essential purpose in a functioning democracy; yet, people are less inclined to trust journalists, read or pay attention to the news, and buy actual newspapers. Going forward, it’s likely going to get harder to break important stories like the church abuse scandal. This film forces us to ask the question: Could a story like this be uncovered now? And would an increasingly dubious and fickle public pay attention?

How do the filmmakers use architecture to comment on the story and situation?

  • By repeatedly showing church exteriors and interiors around the reporters’ territory of investigation, we are continually reminded of how integral and present the Catholic Church is to the greater Boston community.
  • Likewise, the main setting is the Boston Globe building and its many offices. That structure’s exterior is also shown a few times throughout the film.
  • Interestingly, the filmmakers also take us and the reporters up and down different levels to find the truth, including a trip down to the Globe’s dingy and smelly basement, where they uncover dark secrets.
  • Other structures stand out as memorable, including the spooky-looking house on Matty’s block where two abusing priests reside.

Other movies about the craft of journalism

  • Good Night and Good Luck
  • Broadcast News
  • The Insider
  • Citizen Kane
  • Absence of Malice
  • The Paper
  • The Post

Other films by director Tom McCarthy

  • The Station Agent
  • Win Win
  • The Visitor

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