One of the biggest paradigm shifts for daily newspapers in the Internet age has been a movement away from international coverage and toward hard-hitting local reporting. Why waste resources on a bureau in Istanbul or Beijing, mused editors and publishers of mid-market dailies at the turn of the 21st century (and ever since), when a handful of major outfits and wire services are there already?
Marty Baron felt a similar way when he arrived as editor of the Boston Globe in 2001, shortly after the paper was bought by the New York Times. At the beginning of Spotlight, out this weekend at a Cleveland theater near you, Baron (played by a terse and sober Liev Schrieber) says he wants to make the Globe essential to its local readership, and the best way to do that is to take a long, hard, detached look at the city's most powerful institutions, by which term he includes the Catholic Church.
"I think the city's institutions work best when they work together," Boston Cardinal Bernard Law tells Baron at a customary introductory meeting early in the movie. (Cleveland Bishop Richard Lennon was considered Law's protege, for whatever that's worth.)
"I'm of the opinion that for the newspaper to do its job, it has to stand on its own," Baron responds.
Baron convinces investigative editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) to sick his Spotlight dogs on the story of priest abuse. A court case involving one deviant priest had been on the fringes of the news at the time, and Baron felt there was important information in court-sealed documents — certainly more, in any case, than the Globe had reported on in previous years. The Spotlight team was an investigative unit dedicated to in-depth, long-term reporting (the sort of unit that's often on the chopping block when newsrooms downsize).
Robinson and his team — Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian D'Arcy James — in their shambolic basement headquarters (a room that you just know positively reeks of old coffee) begin digging into the story: interviewing victims of abuse, tracking down lawyers and prosecutors familiar with the church's cover-up tactics, scouring old church data, and mining the Globe's archive of physical clippings to painstakingly assemble a massive (and ultimately Pulitzer Prize-winning) piece of investigative journalism.
Newspaper vets and movie critics alike have been gushing about Spotlight because it's a film which, like All the President's Men in 1976, (and unlike last month's Truth, for example), doesn't glamorize the profession. Investigative journalism is tedious, often terribly unsexy work. And both director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, Win Win) and his ensemble cast deserve acclaim for presenting onscreen what is likely the truest depiction of newsroom life ever. Kudos also to set designer William Cheng for perfectly recreating the Globe newsroom in an abandoned Sears warehouse in Toronto.
At the same time, the movie is thrilling: The eventual contact with a source or the recovery of missing documents become as gratifying as a delayed lover's embrace. And though it's an unabashed ode and homage to print journalism, it's also a celebration of the things that good journalism (and good journalists) stand for: afflicting the comfortable and all that honorable J-school stuff. It's inspiring that in a town like Boston, with its huge number of Catholics and its incestuous culture of power and prestige among city leaders (a lot like Cleveland in those respects), a daily paper made good on its unique position to educate the public and to challenge leaders and institutions thought to be untouchable — indeed, thought to be sacrosanct.