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By Philip Revzin

Editor's note, 29 February 2016: On the occasion of 'Spotlight' winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, we revisit Philip Revzin's review.

NEW YORK, 18 DECEMBER 2015 — Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight may be the best movie ever made about investigative journalism, admittedly not a crowded genre, and it couldn’t have come at a better time.

Sadly, the dedicated investigative team at the Boston Globe that’s depicted in the film, chasing down stories about the Catholic church covering up the horrific sexual abuse inflicted by priests upon children a decade ago, is one of a shrinking number of such bulwarks of truth around the U.S. It’s still doing great stories, as the recent series on conflicts among surgeons at Boston area hospitals attests, as are the New York Times and Washington Post, now being led by Marty Baron, the editor depicted in the movie. The independent ProPublica team has done yeoman work, most recently unearthing questionable management behavior at the American Red Cross. But mostly, as print outlets move more and more online, the expense of housing newshounds who may produce one story a year, if that, is proving prohibitive. That’s a real problem not just for newspapers, but for all of us.

Yet there’s still hope. Just as scads of kids decided to go into journalism after the last great reporters’ movie, All The President’s Men, starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, maybe Spotlight will drive the current generation to figure out new ways to afflict the comfortable, even if they do it with pixels rather than ink on dead trees.

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James,
Michael Keaton, and John Slattery in Spotlight

Meanwhile, we can marvel at the ensemble cast that brings to the screen the often boring, frustrating, and peculiar world of investigative reporters. They’re a famously rowdy and unmanageable breed, with reporters grousing at editors, editors grousing at higher-up editors, everybody wanting just a few more days to finish the story and then complaining when it gets held up just a few days for space reasons. It may be possible for such a reporter to have a perfectly neat desk, but I’ve never seen it.

The film’s credibility is cemented by flawless and easily overlooked detail. Reporters spend an enormous amount of time on the phone, generally being told their desired source is in a meeting or otherwise unavailable. (There was e-mail in 2001 when the events in Spotlight take place, but it hadn’t taken over the profession yet.) Getting documents from public sources can be Kafkaesque, even when the Catholic Church isn’t trying to hide anything. The Rachel McAdams character gets so stressed that she practically breaks the dishwasher trying to get the bottom tray back in. Important leads come from clip files of old stories (now pretty much online and easier to search) and from (gasp!) reference books gathering dust on shelves in the basement, records that need to be scrutinized line by line.

Brian d’Arcy James and Mark Ruffalo are compelling as dogged investigative reporters, with the latter living in genial squalor both at the office and at home. Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery are editors with virtues and faults inherent in those jobs, while Paul Guilfoyle (Capt. Brass on CSI) makes a cameo appearance as an unctuous Church spokesman, as does Broadway vet Len Cariou as Cardinal Law.

Stanley Tucci in Spotlight

The story is about the abuse of children by Catholic priests in Boston (and of course well beyond) but the investigative process applies universally. The spark may come from a mundane news item or court case or letter from a reader. Those involved are reluctant to talk or often not believed (here embodied by a victim crying for attention played by Neal Huff). Lawyers are usually involved, and that’s never good. (Stanley Tucci is wonderful as one of these.) Editors may drop the ball, as happens here, but they may also make great decisions, as Liev Schreiber playing Marty Baron does, to widen rather than narrow the investigative scope. Targets apply legal and commercial pressure to soften or kill stories, requiring difficult decisions from publishers. One great story leads to a torrent of even better stories.

It’s all there in Spotlight, it’s all accurate, and it gets played out in newsrooms all over. Woe betide us if we ever forget how much we owe the dogged men and women who read all those letters, documents, reports, and e-mails on our behalf, be it in front of a computer screen or in a dusty archive.

Philip Revzin is an award winning journalist and former editor-at-large for Bloomberg News. Previously, he was a long-time reporter, editor and publisher for The Wall Street Journal Europe in London, Paris and Brussels. Later, Mr. Revzin was named publisher and editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review and the publisher for The Wall Street Journal Asia in Hong Kong.


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