'Spotlight': What the movie has to say about contemporary journalism

'Spotlight' stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo as editors and reporters at the Boston Globe who did Pulitzer Prize-winning work reporting on the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal.

Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films/AP
'Spotlight' stars Rachel McAdams (l.), Mark Ruffalo (center), and Brian d'Arcy James (r.).

A group of Boston Globe reporters and editors recently gathered in New York to celebrate the premiere of Tom McCarthy's drama about their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal. When asked why "Spotlight" – the film named after their investigative team – has earned their respect, they respond in an eager chorus.

"They got it right," echoes around the table of Walter Robinson, who headed Spotlight, former deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., and two reporters from the team: Sacha Pfeiffer (now a columnist) and Mike Renzendes, who remains a part of Spotlight.

In the film, they're played, respectively, by Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Rachel McAdams, and Mark Ruffalo. Usually, the gulf between fiction and reality, Hollywood and the newsroom (or anywhere else), is too wide to engender the kind of enthusiasm shared among the veteran journalists.

"We all feel like we've been struck by lightning and it actually feels very good," says Robinson.

The power of "Spotlight," now in limited release, isn't just felt by its real-life reporters; it's a big-screen bolt of inspiration for a beleaguered profession. While the film's attributes are numerous (its large ensemble also includes Liev Schreiber as former Globe editor Marty Baron and Brian d'Arcy James as Spotlight reporter Matt Carroll), its greatest strength is its rigorous depiction of investigative journalism and its celebration of an increasingly endangered species of news gathering.

"We were driven by: Let's be as accurate and authentic as we can. Let's put our faith in that," says McCarthy, the writer-director of "Win Win" and "The Station Agent." ''We kept saying: We're not going to be slick with this movie. We're not going to play games. We're going to present it."

"Spotlight" is a journalistic procedural that gathers its drama by closely following the footsteps of the scruffy, dogged Globe reporters. Their reporting uncovered the widespread cover-up that led to Cardinal Bernard F. Law's resignation, shook the church to the Vatican, and offered a modicum of justice for thousands of victims.

To make it, McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer spent more than two years researching each step of the investigation by the reporters, who, though initially skeptical, were won over by the filmmakers' diligence. In addition to meeting with victims and journalists, McCarthy and Singer combed through documents and emails from the years of work that culminated in coverage published in 2002.

"It became apparent pretty quickly that they were intent on doing as much research about us that we did about the church initially," says Robinson.

"It made us trust them more," says Renzendes.

The reporters remained involved throughout the scripting, and later met with the actors and visited the set in Toronto, which doubled for Boston.

"To the one, Josh and I really had a strong connection with them and just thought they were really interesting and dynamic people," says McCarthy. "We had a great admiration for the work they had done. As we brought actors on, and they got a chance to spend time with them, they felt the same way."

Ruffalo came away with a deep appreciation for Renzendes after shadowing him. "Rarely do you get to sit next to a master and get to understand how they work," says Ruffalo.

James felt similarly: "People call acting a vocation. I tend to think of journalism as the same, as something that you feel is a higher calling that you bound to do just by what's inside of you."

That connection has helped inspire a long tradition of films about journalism, from "His Girl Friday" to "Ace in the Hole" to "All the President's Men." The latter, especially, looms large over the genre. The Watergate drama famously fictionalized Bradlee's father, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee.

"It was similar in the seriousness that both movies undertook the task to get it right. They recreated the Post newsroom to a T, just the way these guys recreated the Globe newsroom," says Bradlee Jr. "My father always talked about, for better or worse, people remember him as Jason Robards. He lucked out."

"Spotlight," though, isn't altogether laudatory. It shows missteps, delays, and self-destructive oversights in the path to the story. Throughout the movie runs a conversation in subtext, strongly relevant to today's digitized news world, about how investigative reporting takes time and money and persistence.

"For me, in large part, this movie is very much about faith," says McCarthy. "And not religious or spiritual faith but institutional faith. Faith in your fellow citizens, faith in a newspaper."

McCarthy, raised Irish Catholic, doesn't come from a journalistic background, but he says his experience playing a fabricating reporter on David Simon's "The Wire" was foundational. McCarthy calls the Baltimore Sun reporter turned TV writer-producer "the devil on my shoulder on this film." (Simon has endorsed the movie.)

The official Vatican radio has also called the film "honest" and praised the reporters as "paladins of the need for justice" in their community and city.

"Inevitably, I think the film will make young people want to be reporters," says Pfeiffer. "But what I think is more important is reminding everyone you have to support journalism and newspapers. Buy a digital subscription, get home delivery. You supporting us is how we do this work."

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