Unlike many films about reporters, “Spotlight” accurately depicts the frustrations and joys of breaking a big story, from the drudgery of spreadsheets to the electric thrill of revelatory interviews.
Over the decades, Hollywood screenwriters have taken liberties with every imaginable profession and craft, from doctors to lawyers to spies to police detectives. Rocky Balboa survives punches that would decapitate an ordinary boxer. The car chases in The Bourne Identity defy physics. John McClane, the hard-boiled cop in the Die Hard series, displays a supernatural ability to evade bullets.
Journalism movies have had their share of utterly improbable moments. In the 1994 film “The Paper,” the city editor of a New York City tabloid gets into a fist fight with his female boss as he tries to stop the presses. (Not a great career move.) More recently, the first season of HBO’s television series The Newsroom showed a producer landing a series of astounding scoops in the first hours after the explosion of the Deepwater Horizon. The reporter’s information came from miraculously well-placed sources – a sister who worked at Halliburton and a close friend who happened to be a junior BP executive attending all the key crisis meetings.
All of this makes “Spotlight,” the film based on the Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church, a remarkable achievement. The movie, which has been nominated for six Academy Awards including best picture, vividly captures the mix of frustration, drudgery and excitement that goes into every great investigative story. Where liberties were taken, and there were a few, they are in line with the realities of the news business.
One of the most credible aspects of the movie is the cluelessness with which the reporters begin their quest. As is often the case, the Globe’s group of reporters, known as the “Spotlight” Team, have no idea of the size and scope of what they’re trying to examine. At first, they stumble around, lacking the most basic information about how the church bureaucracy worked.
The notion of pedophile priests was not new. Newspapers from Dallas to Portland had done deeply reported stories on individual cases. Boston itself had just witnessed the criminal trial of a particularly notorious priest, Father John J. Geoghan. Initially, senior editors at the Globe are not even persuaded there was a story worth chasing.
As the film briefly acknowledges, the Globe was behind the Boston Phoenix, a respected alternative weekly, in covering the subject for local readers. Kristen Lombardi, a reporter for the Phoenix, had already written a series of stories implicating Cardinal Bernard Law, the leader of Boston’s archdiocese, in allowing Geoghan to remain in daily contact with children for three decades.