The new film Spotlight (starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and a stellar ensemble cast) arrives just in the nick of time. Back in 1976, when the film version of All the President’s Men was in wide release, journalism seemed like the most exciting profession in the world – and the most important. After all, the central figures in that real-life story, Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein (played by Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) , had launched the investigation that led to the fall of President Nixon and his Watergate cronies. By heeding the advice of an informer code-named Deep Throat to “follow the money,” Woodward and Bernstein uncovered a political scandal that pointed toward the nation’s highest-ranking government officials. Their investigative work, it can be argued, saved American democracy.
In the aftermath of All The President’s Men, it was no wonder that ambitious young people started enrolling in J-school in droves. But all that seems like a long time ago. In the forty years since All the President’s Men, the journalistic profession has undergone some cataclysmic changes. Newspaper advertising, once an important source of revenue, is no longer a cash cow. A host of young Americans get their news off the Internet, bypassing newspapers altogether. Some prominent daily newspapers have merged; many have disappeared. Even if you’re lucky enough to nab a staff newspaper job, you can’t count on holding it for long. As a proud member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors, I see gifted newspaper journalists struggling to have viable careers. For a number of them, it’s been necessary to leave traditional journalism in order to make a living writing advertorial materials and what’s euphemistically called “custom content.”
Which is why Spotlight is so refreshing. Here’s another true story about newspaper journalists whose investigations make a difference at the highest levels. Spotlight, which takes place circa 2001, is the story of a small, dedicated team, led by Michael Keaton, at the Boston Globe. A smart new editor, well played by Liev Schreiber, urges them to look further into the dead-end case of a Roman Catholic priest who was accused of molesting children decades earlier. The team—made up entirely of lapsed Catholics—discovers that in the heavily Catholic city of Boston any hint of malfeasance by clergy is enveloped by a conspiracy of silence uniting the Church, the courts, local politicians, and even newspapermen. By the time the truth is fully out, it implicates almost 100 priests and sets the scene for ever more wide-reaching accusations of illegal cover-ups in Boston and elsewhere.
I love the way Spotlight’s journalists (who also include Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) really act like journalists, expending lots of shoe leather as they raise around Boston, button-holing officials, searching through dusty files, pulling out their ever-ready reporter notebooks as they assure interview subjects of their good intentions. Ruffalo, in particular, is the pitbull among them, the brash young man who’ll never let go of a promising lead. McAdams, meanwhile, is particularly good at gently persuading abuse victims to tell their tragic stories.
This is not the first time Michael Keaton has played a journalist. In Ron Howard’s charming The Paper, which chronicles 24 hours in the life of a fictive New York daily, he was as dogged and driven as he is here. But that film was more of a fantasy, with justice quickly served and a warm-and-fuzzy ending. There’s nothing warm and fuzzy about Spotlight, but it’s impossible to look away. Maybe it will help bring back investigative journalism as an honorable career.