'Spotlight': Why the inspiring journalism movie has critics talking Oscar

'Spotlight' stars actors including Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo as journalists at the Boston Globe who reported on the Catholic Church. The film recently screened at the Toronto Film Festival.

Richard Shotwell/Invision/AP
'Spotlight' stars Mark Ruffalo.

The newest movie that screened at the Toronto Film Festival and has critics talking is “Spotlight,” a film about the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church. 

The film stars actors including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, and Michael Keaton and is directed by Tom McCarthy of “The Station Agent.”

After recently screening in Toronto, “Spotlight” has reviewers calling it a definite Oscar contender. Critics are writing that the movie is “sharp, incisive, [and] quietly moving… tells a knotty story with boundless intelligence, wit, and insight,” “so assured, so deft, and so satisfying,” and “[has an] impeccable ensemble [and] superb storytelling.”

Stories about journalism at the movies are nothing new, though the mood of the films has varied from inspiring to a darker look at the practice. Probably the most well-known, and one of the most-lauded, movies about reporters is the 1976 film “All the President’s Men,” which stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, respectively, and was nominated for the Best Picture Oscar, with actor Jason Robards winning a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for the film. Another critically praised and inspiring journalism film was the 2005 movie “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which was directed by George Clooney and starred David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow. The movie was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director and Strathairn was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.  

Meanwhile, 2008’s “Frost/Nixon” was a look at how journalist David Frost elicited crucial admissions from former president Richard Nixon. The movie earned a nod for Best Picture and Best Actor nomination for Frank Langella, who portrayed Nixon.

Other famous films about journalism have taken a darker tone. Another of the most famous ones, the 1976 movie “Network,” is often credited as exemplifying the cynical mood of the country during that decade and shows a network taking advantage of fleeting fame for ratings. The classic 1940 comedy "His Girl Friday" mainly centers on newspaper editor Walter Burns (Cary Grant) and his efforts to win back reporter ex-wife Hildy (Rosalind Russell), but it also presents a scathing view of journalists and their practices, though Walter and Hildy do take down a corrupt public official in the end. The 2003 movie “Shattered Glass,” meanwhile, told the story of how journalist Stephen Glass was able to commit plagiarism at publications such as the New Republic. In addition, last year’s “Nightcrawler,” which starred Jake Gyllenhaal as a cameraman who sells footage of violent incidents to TV networks, also posited that a network would go far in order to secure ratings. 

A 2014 Gallup poll showed that Americans believing that the media will give the news “fully, accurately, and fairly” was at a record low of 40 percent (in 2002, when the Globe published the first of its stories, it was at 54 percent). But some of the recent Best Picture winners have been inspiring stories like “Spotlight.” Last year’s winner “Birdman” and the 2013 Best Picture “12 Years a Slave” were grim, but the 2012 winner “Argo” was a true story of how some Americans were saved during the Iran hostage crisis, while the 2010 winner, “The King’s Speech,” was a triumphant tale of personal adversity being overcome, with King George VI learning to control his stutter and, through that, gaining more confidence in his ability to be a monarch. The 2011 winner “The Artist” and “Slumdog Millionaire” were also tales that would likely have the audiences leaving the theater feeling cheerful – “Artist” was a fun story of a silent film star using his musical talents to succeed anew in Hollywood and “Slumdog” had an upbeat ending of an Indian teenager doing well on a game show and winning over his love interest, though it also depicted harrowing scenes of poverty. 

Oscar voters can go for dark films as well. But with recent Best Picture winners “Birdman” and “Slave” being grimmer fare, voters may be ready for an inspiring story like “Spotlight.”

[Editor's note: This reporter's father was employed by the Boston Globe at the time the Catholic Church abuse stories were published.]

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