Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: "Spotlight" Explores How Great Journalism Used to Be With Compelling Results

Scene from Spotlight
What is the job of the journalist? In 2015, this is a loaded question largely thanks to the digital era. With the advent of Twitter and Buzzfeed, news has become more about the immediacy than the truth - choosing to react viscerally to the moment than to understand what happened. As a result, the value of the journalist feels different because of how easily they're washed out by uneducated competitors. In director Thomas McCarthy's Spotlight, the story looks shockingly different for the turn-of-the-millennium look at The Boston Globe's Spotlight team as they tackle a controversial problem with the Catholic Church. Beyond its taboo subject, the film is a love letter to the process and how, only back in 2001, the value of information was different (arguably more important) than it is today. Even if Spotlight can be seen as just another procedural drama, it's one that reflects a changing tide of relevancy to the newspaper industry and the public's admiration for investigative journalism as a means of change.

The story begins with one conflict. One priest is accused of child molestation. Because The Boston Globe's readership is majority Catholic, the decision to run a story that decries the church as anything but perfect is a major gamble. While The Globe thinks in decades, the church thinks in centuries; choosing to take down foes with unthinkable power. What starts with one case escalates until the number is almost 90 times as high. This isn't because of shoddy journalism. It's because of those moments where Spotlight's many journalists have doors slammed in their face and are rejected information. It's because they know the paper's financial risk with this story. Even if the execution to get the answers seems familiar, especially to fans of All the President's Men, the emotional turmoil is the driving force of the movie. 

There's conflicts that go beyond the initial conflict. There's an understanding that this will change how many things are perceived. Beyond the church, various reporters are lapsed Catholics who are timid to learn harsh truths. This is most noteworthy in Mark Ruffalo's performance as Mike Rezendes, who is the primary investigator and who uncovers the most controversial of subjects. There's a slow nuance that tears at his soul as he begins to have his dying faith challenged. Spotlight isn't out to suggest that religion is bad. Despite the Catholic Church being seen more as a corporate competitor from a narrative standpoint, there's always an understanding that the church is more flawed than evil - with many assailants being stand alone bad seeds. Still, it's impossible not to profile them as anything but corrupt because of this. Thankfully, the film avoids the hurdle of many progressive 21st century films by not taking it out on the church, but more on the individuals - whose conflicts range from molestation to faith testing to its impact on their life. The only real damnation comes from the guilt that the city of Boston has in not bringing the problems to justice sooner.

The film argues from the start: what is a journalist? In the traditional Woodward and Bernstein sense, it's being dedicated and unbiased. The point of reporting is to share an honest and thorough story without any hint of a political agenda. While this film's plot may sound like it, the story's evolution suggests that a "political agenda" would more rely on not bringing the victims to justice. As a result, the film does an exhaustive job of reflecting the turmoil that the entire city, as well as The Globe, have faced in the past few decades. Nothing is perfect and everyone is judged equally. Even when vindictive behaviors are announced, they are shot down in favor of fair and honest reporting. The journalist is responsible for asking the hard questions, which are done often in the film - especially between Rezendes and lawyer  Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). Even McCarthy's direction adds gravitas, with various visual cues implying something deeper about the church's relationship to the community. This is seen when Spotlight interviews the victims and comes across a playground in front of a church. The symbolism may be a little jarring, but its ambitions are welcomed.

More than anything, Spotlight should be viewed as a relic of what American culture was like at the turn of the millennium. In 2001, the culture was radically different and barely ready to embrace the iPod phenomenon. It was a time where most files weren't digitally available and papers were always cluttered in notes. Most of all, it seems important to notice the value of journalism, which seems to get celebrity treatment at every turn - as most people at least have heard of The Boston Globe. Sadly, with the shrinking presence of newsstands nationwide, Spotlight has very little connection to the contemporary times in terms of news relevancy. The fight for honesty in media still exists, but feels overshadowed by the enticing immediate reaction on Twitter or the banality of Buzzfeed articles. The audience who cared about Spotlight likely doesn't care to read an article half as long nowadays. It's sad.

In a great world, Spotlight would reinvigorate the traditional sense of journalism. In the real world, it's more of a love letter to honest reporting. It's a refreshing and taught drama that challenges the belief that controversial stories aren't important. More importantly, taking time to get the right answers has unfortunately become more of a bygone product. The fight for justice still exists, but Spotlight shows the dawn of an era of journalism as well as one of the more conflicting views of religion to come out of the past 100 years. It may not always be the most gripping movie out there, but it's a film with humanity and integrity at every turn, which only adds to the depth of its protagonists. Even if this film gets buried as a more contemporary All the President's Men, it is to be taken with high praise. Few films can take journalism and turn it into something far more symbolic and fascinating. Thomas McCarthy has done just that.

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