Ever since completing a festival hat-trick earlier this year, garnering widespread acclaim at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, writer-director Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” has become somewhat of a frontrunner in the Oscar race for Best Picture. With its thorough attention to detail and well-matched ensemble — including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Shreiber, Stanley Tucci and Brian d’Arcy James, among others — the drama grippingly recounts the Boston Globe’s investigation of sex abuse within the Catholic Church.
The investigation earned the Globe the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, and “Spotlight” is just as powerful of a reminder of the civic responsibility of journalists now as it was 13 years ago when the story first broke; perhaps even more so given the current climate of digital news. In the decade-plus since the report, journalism has faced challenges from the Internet, social media and the need for instantaneous news. Numerous outlets have been forced to cease publication or make large-scale layoffs, and reporting is now something anyone can seemingly try their hand at, despite the fact that — as “Spotlight” proves — it is a singular and vital craft when done correctly.
“We’re in a time now where we have citizen journalism, and it’s really exciting,” said McCarthy, addressing the crowd at 92Y in New York City during a special screening of the film Monday night as part of Annette Insdorf’s Reel Pieces series. “But we agree that when you spend time with professional journalists — with men and women who are committed to the craft — and you realize, like anyone else, I don’t want anyone running into a burning building, I want a fireman. When I want someone going after the truth, I want a journalist for that.” Joined by four of his principle cast members — Keaton, Ruffalo, Tucci and James — McCarthy lamented the loss of well-informed investigative journalism.
“Everyone in this room knows what a hit this industry has taken and how many reporters have lost their jobs,” he said. “What an American tragedy that is unfolding right before our very eyes. High-level investigative journalism is important to our democracy. We made this movie thinking [that] we can’t comment on it in the picture, but we can show people, here’s what can happen when you let journalists do their jobs and we fully support them. Their work speaks for themselves.”
Stressing the importance of research, fact checking and, above all, the patience for exposing the truth, “Spotlight” represents an era of endangered journalism. “These days it’s so upsetting and infuriating and obviously — not stupid — but crazy when it’s based on ratings and attention,” Keaton said of today’s news, indirectly making the efforts of the Spotlight team all the more notable. “In England, when they give you the news, they give you the news. They don’t roll their eyes or give you their opinion. I don’t want your fucking opinion! Give me the fucking news and let me think about what I think about the information.”
“It’s all so obvious to me these days that it drives me out of my mind. Anyone can be a journalist now and everyone is a journalist now, which weirdly is kind of cool and democratic. It’s also fucking annoying,” the actor continued. “People base it on nothing, There’s no dirt there. To be around [the real Spotlight team] and see how they go about what they do, it’s really refreshing. It’s not a question of the old days being better, the issue is: Are you really willing to stand by something and do the work and not do it for anything other than because it’s your job?”
“They’re their own breed,” McCarthy added, further distinguishing what makes a true, well-worn journalist. “I compare them to musicians recently because musicians are their own breed that I love but never understand. They’re intensely serious people, intensely curious and relentless in the pursuit of getting to the bottom of something. That can be very unnerving to spend time with and quite unpleasant. I’ll sometimes throw something out without giving it much thought, which we do all the time, and they’ll be like, ‘What do you mean?’ It’s like having your annoying little brother.”
The work of the real Spotlight team was so influential that it was all McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer needed for inspiration, despite the fact the film follows a long tradition of journalism films, most notably Alan Pakula’s “All the President’s Men.” “We just wanted to be as truthful to the story as we can,” he said. “When you get something that is so powerful and so rich, we just wanted to be as authentic to that as we can.”
“It goes without saying that our greatest inspiration was the reporters themselves and the investigation they did. It was so straightforward, so resolute, unadorned and so powerful, that we felt let’s use that as our benchmark and marshal on with that. Let’s imbue the rest of our creative team, including our actors, with that spirit and trust and hope, as we always do with making movies — you hope — it will win the day, that it will be compelling and entertaining.”
In the case of “Spotlight,” it certainly is.
“Spotlight” opens in select theaters November 6, courtesy of Open Road Films.