Spotlight: How real investigative reporting is done–and why isn’t there more of it?

spotlight-one-sheetThere are no car chases, explosions, zombies or love scenes in the recently released movie, “Spotlight.” But a lot of important things happen. The movie recounts how, in 2001 and 2002, a special investigative-reporting team at the Boston Globe exposed widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as the systematic cover-up that kept the problem hushed up for decades.

It’s a quiet movie: Not much in the way of action, zero romance, no sudden plot twists, and a distinct absence of swelling violin themes and pulsating, urgent rhythms. Instead, “Spotlight” is more of a chronicle—following the [mostly] unhurried, step-by-step, cumulative process that characterizes real investigative reporting. The four-person “Spotlight” team at the Boston Globe won the Pulitzer Prize for this story in 2002.

The cast features big names—Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci—who play their roles as Boston Globe reporters and editors convincingly. There’s no showboating, no scene stealing, no over-emoting. I’ve read that the actors were so committed to getting their characters right that they met with them not just to gather background information, but also to observe them and nail down the way they dressed, the way they moved, and the way they talked. I’ve read, too, that the story told in the screenplay is about as true to the real story as it gets.

[Sidebar: I’ve just started reading “Betrayal: The Crisis in the Catholic Church,” which lays out the findings of the investigation that inspired “Spotlight.” The book includes much more detail about the investigation, including some of the stories of the victims. I’m looking forward to learning more, and from what I’ve seen so far, this book—written in a reader-friendly, feature-article style—is going to fill in a lot of the details that, understandably, couldn’t fit into the movie.]

So, kudos to director Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer for authenticity. I’m confident that their effort will contrast sharply with that of pseudo-historian Oliver Stone, whose movie “Snowden” was previewed at our movie theatre before the screening of “Spotlight.”

“Spotlight” will undoubtedly draw comparisons to “All the President’s Men,” the 1976 recounting of Woodward and Bernstein’s expose of the Watergate scandal, which ultimately led to the resignation of President Richard Nixon. That movie inspired a generation of journalists and investigative reporters. It would be reassuring to think that “Spotlight” might do the same. But in this movie, the cast is not nearly as celebrated as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, and their exploits are not as cloak-and-dagger-y as the Deep Throat connection. In addition, there’s this: Investigative reporting—even in the mere 14 years since the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal broke—is fast becoming a lost art, not because it’s no longer needed, but because newspapers are losing their audiences and their clout, and because investigative reporting is increasingly seen as a cost center in a cost-cutting world.

It’s also disappointing to note that, at our movie theatre, on a Sunday evening, there were only 10 people in the audience. We saw “Spotlight” in a multi-plex in a suburban neighborhood. It’s also showing at a more arty theatre in an even more affluent area, where I suspect that the generally NPR-type demographic probably packed the house. But I’m guessing that this is not a mass-appeal film, and that the run will be quite short. Fortunately, Oscar-buzz has attached itself to “Spotlight,” [mostly to Mark Ruffalo, an actor with some serious sex-appeal–and great acting ability, by the way], so it may get more play down the line.

I hope so, because the subtext of the movie is that we cannot let the fourth estate dwindle: Its role in forcing government and societal institutions to be more transparent and accountable is critical to democracy. Left uninvestigated and unreported, powerful people and institutions are not about to reveal their flaws and their crimes. And, as we see in “Spotlight,” it’s just too easy to ignore problems, cover them up—even to acquiesce to them and thereby enable them—unless someone has the courage to stick them in front of our noses.

Today, the very existence of legitimate journalism is in serious danger: We’re substituting news- and press-release reprinters/readers for reporters. We’re allowing propagandists to pose as experts and journalists. So-called reporters and news anchors don’t bother to challenge the outrageous statements and outright lies of politicians. And we’re deluding ourselves into thinking that tweets and facebook posts constitute news reporting.

“Spotlight” is a timely reminder of the importance and the power of the press in a democracy: a basic building block that we, as a society and as individuals, should value and defend.