The most depressing casualty from the democratisation of the media is investigative journalism. After all, it is easy in this digital age for anyone to do basic journalism. You can set up a blog, website or social media profile with a few simple clicks. Meanwhile, information is so readily and quickly accessible online that basic reporting has never been so effortless. It has made journalism a more competitive industry than it has ever been before. As a result, the media landscape is a constant scramble for who can report a story first and real journalists are rarely given the time to check facts or dig beyond what is on the surface. Even if they could, media organisations don’t make the money they used to with the increase in competition (not to mention that most people consume their news for free online) and editors simply don’t have the resources to allow writers months, weeks or even days to assemble a story properly.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy’s film ‘Spotlight’ – his second film in 2015 alongside the critical disaster ‘The Cobbler’ – is a welcome reminder of the importance of this kind of investigative reporting. It recounts the nuts-and-bolts journalism performed by The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team as they uncovered corruption within the Catholic Church in 2001. The story focuses on the small squad of seasoned journalists – Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) – as they expose the trend of child abuse by Catholic priests and their avoidance of punishment via a systemic cover-up. The team would highlight over 200 cases of child abuse by unearthing facts, verifying sources and conducting persistent interviews. They won a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts.
‘Spotlight’ is a story of journalism at its very best. It celebrates how, when true reporters are given the time, resources and editorial freedom to do their jobs, the wrongdoing by institutes as powerful as the Catholic Church can be held to account. The movie is faithful to the Spotlight team’s matter-of-fact journalism by depicting their investigation with maturity and gracefulness. It doesn’t sensationalise, simplify or hyper-stylise the story. Instead, the script by McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer revels in the complex legal loopholes that allowed them access to crucial facts, it isn’t afraid of exploring the difficult psychological pressures its victims faced in coming forward, and has the patience to depict the endurance it took to convince certain conspirators to blow the whistle.
The film is modest and clinical. So much so, however, that it is almost sterile. While ‘Spotlight’ is a very compelling piece of storytelling it never really conjures the encroaching dread or icy tension that makes other newsroom thrillers like ‘All The President’s Men’ and ‘Zodiac’ classics of their respective eras – both of which are films ‘Spotlight’ will (and already has) been compared with. Stylistically, it is clean but anonymous, filmed mostly with medium-close up shots in scenes tightly edited around the dialogue.
It doesn’t help that Tom McCarthy’s fascination with the mechanics of the Spotlight journalists’ work unfortunately doesn’t extend to the journalists themselves. ‘Spotlight’s actors are impressive but their characters, beyond the undoubtedly tremendous work they do, are disappointingly bland. We learn very little about them except for one or two references to their personal lives. How Michael Rezendes is having some relationship trouble, how Matt Carroll is anxious about the safety of his children (although we never meet any of them), or how Sacha Pfeiffer has a family with strong faith in the Catholic Church. It doesn’t give the ensemble, which also features the likes of John Slattery and Billy Crudup, very much to do.