In 1976 the film “All the President’s Men” portrayed the true story of Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward (Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford) uncovering the Watergate Scandal. It wasn’t the first time in cinema that journalists took center stage, but it was one of few films that focused intently on their craft. “All the President’s Men” bagged four Oscars including, aptly, best writing / screenwriting.
Forty years on, and “Spotlight” wins an Oscar for best picture. Once again, the story follows journalists in the newsroom working their backsides off — and not much else. But it’s a riveting, tense 128 minutes, and you see not only the power of the printed word, but also an inkling of why newspapers and books are still around.
It is also an ode to investigative journalism, which by many accounts, is a dying art. The title refers to the name of The Boston Globe team that routinely chased down stories (and still does) primarily on corruption and scandal, for a duration of six months and more, going in-depth and getting up-close. Very few newsrooms have the incentive and budget for a section like Spotlight anymore.
As Jake Adelstein, a Japan Times columnist and author of “Tokyo Vice” who frequents newsrooms in both Japan and the U.S., pointed out in a recent interview, ” ‘Spotlight’ depicts a golden age of journalism in the U.S. that we are unlikely to see again. I have serious doubts that such a project could get off the ground now. Newsrooms are understaffed, resources are low, and reporters are required to churn out stories and generate online page views and feed the beast as much as possible. It’s the ‘churnalism’ era.”
In Japan, the state of the press is even worse. In 2012, Reporters Without Borders ranked Japan 22nd in the annual World Press Freedom Index. It has since plummeted to 61, below Croatia and South Korea.
“Japanese journalists do some great investigative journalism (naming publications such as Tokyo Shimbun, Shukan Bunshun, Zaiten, FACTA and Shukan Shincho),” says Adelstein, “but the mainstream press has turned into a bunch of frightened salarymen and the Abe administration has done this by encouraging press hostility, intimidating the media, wining and dining the heads of Japan’s top media organizations and playing the system marvelously.”
Japanese journalism is also defined by the infamous kisha clubs, a “press-club” system that fosters a codependency between news reporters and authority institutions — the reporters are granted access to information, but they’re almost always banned from digging deeper than what they’ve been doled out. Adelstein adds, “The new secrecy laws scare people as well. Technically, even asking questions about something you don’t know is a state secret could be ‘instigating a leak’ and that can lead to up to five years in jail.”
In this context, as a journalism procedural, “Spotlight” is fascinating to observe. Set in 2001, a few months before 9/11, the Spotlight team, under the command of The Boston Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), is given the freedom to spend eight months working on a single story: the Boston’s Roman Catholic archdiocese’s decades of covering up the sexual abuse of children by some of its priests. The star reporter, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) takes some time off of the story to cover the terrorist attacks, but comes right back to dig up the dirt with his colleagues Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
Baron, who had just arrived from the Miami Herald, is Jewish, but everyone on the Spotlight team is a Boston local with Catholic links. Pfeiffer still goes to Mass with her grandmother and Robinson went to one of Boston’s most prestigious Catholic high schools. The newspaper also “enjoyed” a traditionally cozy relationship with the Catholic church, and in one scene, Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) informs Baron in a conspiratorial tone, “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together.” In other words, Baron had better shed his outsider mind-set and start acting like a good Bostonian.
Baron doesn’t fume or rave at this, but he remains undeterred. Though the Spotlight team is initially reluctant to investigate, once the members listen to accounts of victims and then run up against resistance from both the church and the multi-layered system that protects it, their motivation is fueled.
Rezendes, in particular, responds with work and more work. Not much is revealed about the team’s personal lives, but in the case of Rezendes his line of work has led to separation from his wife and he has moved into a cubbyhole apartment downtown. Pfeiffer is married, Carroll has kids and Robinson likes to play golf. But mostly we see them working — through the night and on weekends — to excavate one of the biggest scandals in the history of the Roman Catholic Church.
“Spotlight” does not sensationalize investigative journalism — in fact, some may be disappointed by its slower pace and lack of action. The team go to an occasional Red Sox game, but other than that they’re seen mostly at desks, talking on phones and defrosting frozen pizzas in lieu of heading out for meals. It’s a far more realistic version of journalism than is often portrayed. And yet it’s easy to imagine aspiring journalists watching the film being fired with a passion to work on in-depth exposes.
Eight months of investigation is not sexy and it’s not something that the immediacy of online journalism can usually afford.
But, as Adelstein says: “The printed word has a staying power that we don’t quite feel from the Internet. It’s solid, you can hold a newspaper in your hand. The physicality of a newspaper makes what’s printed there feel more real.”