Democracy Dies in Darkness: Spotlight and the Trump Presidency

When it won the Best Picture Oscar a year ago, Spotlight’s message about journalism seemed important. With Trump in the White House, it is essential.

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Last year’s Oscar winner

It is hard to feel sorry for a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Screenplay, was nominated for four others and grossed $90 million. However, a year after Spotlight surprised many by winning the most prestigious Academy Award, it is hard not to think it arrived just a little too early to be truly appreciated.

It tells the story of a team of journalists investigating one of the largest criminal cover-ups in American history. For decades, Catholic priests in Boston abused children. Confronted with this fact, the church hierarchy acted not to protect the victims but the perpetrators. It used its enormous informal influence in the city to keep allegations away from both the criminal justice system and explicit public attention. But Spotlight’s real focus is not on the priests or the church. Rather it is on the city of Boston itself. The film’s contention seems to be that abuse was widespread that most Bostonians knew it was happening. But it was easier to tacitly accept it, than to face the fact that a key ingredient of the social glue holding the city together, was in fact toxic to children. At one point a character opines that: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”

Even some of the journalists shown acting heroically to uncover the scandal, are shown to have been willing to partake in this silence, until pushed to confront that truth. That push comes, perhaps inevitably, from outsiders. Thus, in a film that is in large part about Catholicism, key narrative roles are played by non-Catholics. There is Mitchell Garbidian, an Armenian-American litigation lawyer played by Stanley Tucci, who specialises in representing victims of clerical sexual abuse, and who keeps trying to raise the alarm about quite how many clients he has. But most compellingly there is Marty Baron.

Though Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams were nominated for Oscars for their performances, the best performance in the film comes from Liev Schreiber as Baron. The real Baron grew up in Florida, the son of immigrants from Israel. He worked at a number of America’s most prestigious newspapers before returning to Florida, to edit the Miami Herald, before moving to Boston in 2001 to do the same job for the Globe.

Spotlight repeatedly underlines the importance of his status as a Jew in a Catholic city. From his trying to learn about the city’s baseball team from a book, to his being handed a Catechism by Archbishop Law, the film’s ‘big bad’. On multiple occasions native Bostonians at the Globe are leaned on by Diocesan officials to convey to Baron that the digging he has instigated is not ‘how things are done round here’. Yet it is precisely because he is not invested in the city and its dominant religious institution, that he understands that something untoward is occurring. It is he, who forces his journalists to investigate the abuse allegations, and to focus on the church rather than individual priests.

The revelations that resulted would force Archbishop Law to resign, provoke institutions well beyond the Catholic Church into taking stronger measures to protect children, and end much of the deference previously showed towards the Church. It would also win Baron and his colleagues a Pulitzer Prize.

Fact and fiction

Writing about seeing himself on the screen, Baron wrote that:

Liev Schreiber portrays me as the newly arrived top editor who launched that investigation, and his depiction has me as a stoic, humorless, somewhat dour character that many professional colleagues instantly recognize (“He nailed you”) and that my closest friends find not entirely familiar.

But he also saw a broader significance in the film’s depiction not of him but of his profession:

Aside from the acclaim of critics, “Spotlight” already has delivered one gratifying result. In emails, tweets and Facebook posts, journalists have declared themselves inspired, buoyed and affirmed. That is no small matter in this badly bruised profession. We have felt the traumatizing financial effect of the Internet and been berated by just about everyone, especially politicians in a campaign season that has seen us cynically labeled “scum.”

One journalist wrote me that “the story that inspired the movie serves as a wonderful, wonderful reminder why so many of us got into this business in the first place and why so many stayed despite all the gloom and doom and all the left hooks that landed squarely on our chins along the way.”

A reporter for a major national publication said he had gone to the movie with his entire family. “My kids suddenly think I’m cool,” he said.

Especially heartening has been the reaction of some publishers. One in California rented a theater to show the movie to the paper’s entire staff. Another wrote me on Facebook: “You and the Spotlight team . . . have reenergized me to find a business model to support this critical work.”

Cut to the present

Marty Baron is no longer at the Boston Globe. Since 2012 he has edited an even more august publication: the Washington Post. That has made him an important player in the unsettling confrontation between the media and President Trump.

The print publication that Trump appears to have the most animosity towards is the New York Times. However, it is arguably Baron’s journalists who’ve unearthed the most damaging revelations about the new president.

A staff reporter named David Farenthold revealed that despite Trump claiming to be a generous donor to charity, he actually gave hardly anything away. Most of the money possessed by his charitable foundation was donated by other people, and that was frequently used not for charitable purposes but to enrich Trump. For example, to pay out of court settlements arising from the misdemeanours of Trump’s businesses.

Then Farenthold also got hold of the so-called ‘Access Hollywood tape’ in which Trump makes a succession of crass comments about women, including that being famous allowed him to ‘grab them by the pussy’, which was interpreted by many people, including me, as an admission of committing sexual assault.

Most recently, it was Post reporters who revealed that Trump had been warned that his National Security Advisor, Mike Flynn, had been communicating with Russian diplomats. Something the administration had previously denied.

This has naturally not escaped Trump’s attention. His ire appears to be directed not at Baron but at Jeff Bezos, the Post’s owner and a co-founder of Amazon. Before the election, he complained about “purposely negative and horrible and false articles” the Post was writing and warned that he might take his revenge on Bezos by going after Amazon. At one point saying: “Believe me, if I become president, oh do they have problems, they are going to have such problems” and intimating that he might target Amazon for tax and anti-trust investigations.

Shooting the messenger

At a conference in 2002, Professor Mary Ann Glendon, a future US Ambassador to the Vatican would proclaim that: “…if fairness and accuracy have anything to do with it, awarding the Pulitzer Prize to the Boston Globe would be like giving the Nobel Peace Prize to Osama bin Laden.”

You see, the tendency to deride good reporting that you find inconvenient as ‘fake news’ is not new.

For almost a century journalists have been reciting variants of the saying that “News is what somebody does not want you to print. All the rest is advertising.” One such variation replaces the word ‘advertising’ with ‘public relations’. And as Mark Harris of Vulture has written because Trump’s interaction with the media has primarily been in the context of the entertainment industry, he’s primed to thinking that journalists should indeed act like publicists:

Every entertainment journalist will, sooner or later, be told by a PR representative, “Hey, we’re all in the same business here.” For the journalists and quasi-journalists Trump encountered during his decade-long run as The Apprentice’s star and co-producer, that was uncomfortably close to the truth. Trump thought they needed him more than he needed them, and believed that if they stepped out of line or off of the publicity game plan, he could punish them by cutting them off. And the evidence he chose to see backed him up. For proof, you have only to think back to the perfectly titled Access Hollywood and ask yourself what put Trump on that bus in the first place and allowed him to talk so freely. The answer: It was a safe space, a faux-journalistic enterprise produced by NBC, the network that aired The Apprentice, in which different house rules prevailed. The “interview” was a publicity segment, the “journalist” was a douchey wingman, the actress unwittingly roped into being their tour guide was a performer on Days of Our Lives, an NBC daytime soap on which Trump was about to do a cameo, which would help Days of Our Lives, which would help The Apprentice, which would help Access Hollywood. Hey, we’re all in the same business here.”

This is Trump’s understanding of journalism; it’s the bubble in which he lived for the decade before his campaign began, and it shocks and enrages him when journalism decides to be something other than flattery-for-access.

The result Harris argues is that real journalism of the kind done by the Boston Globe or the Washington Post looks to him like bad journalism. He complains that it is not only ‘fake’ but also ‘nasty’ and bemoans that it relies on leaks of confidential information. He has also accused the media of representing ‘special interests’ rather than ‘the people’.

Baron has suggested that, in this context:

It is no wonder that some members of our staff at The Washington Post and at other news organizations received vile insults and threats of personal harm so worrisome that extra security was required. It is no wonder that one Internet venue known for hate and misogyny and white nationalism posted the home addresses of media executives, clearly inviting vandalism or worse. Thankfully, nothing that I know of happened to anyone. Then there was the yearlong anti-Semitic targeting of journalists on Twitter.

Renewed relevance

It is, therefore, regrettable that Spotlight came out last year rather than now. Many of this year’s nominees can be seen as gaining relevancy from Trump presidency. But broadly speaking, they do so with a general message about tolerance of minorities. Spotlight appears inadvertently much more specifically directed at our present moment.

At the time of its Oscar triumph, Spotlight’s message was considered worthy but not controversial. Objecting to the value of investigative journalism would have seemed as silly as attacking helping the unlucky or striving against the odds. Now it is a divisive political issue. The President’s chief strategist has openly questioned the right of the media to investigate his boss and said the media should ‘keep its mouth shut‘.

Spotlight is a great dramatisation of the case for why this must be challenged with the utmost intensity. A tale of journalists breaking a story, based in part on leaks of confidential information,  about the wrong doing of people in power, that must have seemed ‘nasty’ to those powerful people, who disparage it as ‘false’ even though the carefully assembled evidence shows it is true, is something we could really do with seeing on the screen right now.

Baron recently authorised a change in the Post’s masthead. Underneath the paper’s title now sit the words ‘Democracy Dies in Darkness’.  Spotlight dramatises the truth of that sentiment for its audience. It illustrates that only by having powerful people asked awkward and potentially ‘nasty’ questions, can those with less power be protected from having ‘nasty’ things done to them.

There will always be men like President Trump and Archbishop Law. Let us hope there will remain journalists with the freedom to investigate them.

Ranking the Best Picture nominees

The Oscars are this Sunday. While we wait for that, here’s the opinion that really matters: mine.

 

#8 The Revenant

The setting: The uncolonised lands of the American Midwest circa 1823.

The story: A hunter (Leonardo DiCaprio) is doubled crossed by another member of his party (Tom Hardy) who murders his son and leaves him for dead. He struggles to survive so he can take his revenge.

The case for it winning: It’s a gorgeous film showing some of the most epic landscapes on earth. It totally captures the brutality of its time and place. Hardy’s performance is stellar. And the hardships DiCaprio endured for this film are already legendary.

The case against it winning: It’s striking that the praise for DiCaprio’s work in this film tends to focus on the hypothermia enduring and bison liver chomping inputs rather than the eventual output – which is good rather than great. The film’s gestures towards mystical themes feel superfluous. It’s probably too long and as a result becomes, dare I say it, a bit boring.

 

#7 The Big Short

The setting: the fools paradise before the 2008 crash

The story: Renegade investors discover that supposedly indestructible mortgage backed securities are in fact junk, and indeed threaten the global economy.

The case for it winning: It does a good job telling the story – well part of the story – of the financial collapse. There are some neat performances and it’s inventive in how it makes some of the more arcane details comprehensible.

The case against it winning: A lot of that inventiveness is covering for the fact that a lot of the basics have been fumbled. In particular, more needed to be done to adapt the structure of the book, which works on the page but is a mess on the screen. There are too many scenes that serve a political rather than dramatic purpose. And disappointingly for a film so interested in the details of the crash, its overall diagnosis is rather shallow. It is the kind of the film that believes the fact of bankers visiting strip clubs somehow explains the dysfunction of financial markets.

 

#6 Bridge of Spies

The setting: New York and Berlin during the early years of the Cold War

The story: An insurance lawyer (Tom Hanks) finds himself roped into first defending a Soviet spy (Mark Rylance) and then negotiating for him to be swapped for a captured American pilot.

The case for it winning: Spielberg knows how to tell a story and this is a good one. Hanks is on good form and Rylance is better still.

The case against it winning: It’s good but it’s not among Spielberg’s best work. It is more efficient than outstanding. Nothing really elevates it to greatness. Its presence on this list probably says more about how much Academy members like Spielberg and Hanks than the quality of this film.

 

#5 Brooklyn

The setting: the 1950s. The characters in Brooklyn probably watched the news report the stuff from Bridge of Spies.

The story: A young Irish woman (Saoirse Ronan) emigrates to New York in search of work and finds herself torn between a new life there and her home.

The case for it winning: Mostly Ronan who gives a stellar performance. It’s also admirably warm hearted and convivial. And the use of costume to tell the story is impressive.

The case against it winning: Like Bridge of Spies, pretty much everything in Brooklyn is good but – Ronan aside – nothing is really great. A commendable film but certainly not the best of the year.

 

#4 Mad Max: Fury Road

The setting: a dystopian hellscape where the only good thing that remains are spectacular views of the Namibian desert.

The story: Max (Tom Hardy) and Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) try to get the hareem of a brutal warlord to a land where they will be safe.

The case for it winning: This manages nearly everything that the Revenant did but does it with masses more verve. The world Miller builds is appropriately bonkers. It looks incredible and the action is awe inspiring. Theron should have been nominated for best actress and the feminist themes are admirable.

The case against it winning: The plot is a bit thin. Hardy is a strangely absent lead. The messaging can be a bit ‘on the nose’. And I can’t shake the impression that it’s more overwhelming than good.

 

#3 Room

The setting: There’s a clue in the title.

The story: A young woman (Brie Lawson) is abducted and held in captivity for years. Under these less than ideal conditions she tries to raise a young son (Jacob Tremblay) and mount an escape.

The case for it winning: The emotional power of this film is enormous. It is by turns shocking, disgusting, terrifying, miserable, inspiring and joyful. It is dark without being morbid or sickly which is an achievement. Larson should win Best Actress and Tremblay delivers some of the best child acting ever.

#2 The Martian

The setting: Mars, NASA and space.

The story: An astronaut (Matt Damon) is left behind on Mars and has to improvise his way to survival.

The case for it winning: It’s by far the most entertaining nominee. It’s funny and exciting. It manages the unusual combination of being a one hander for large sections but also building a great ensemble cast.

#1 Spotlight

The setting: Boston in 2001

The story: A team of journalists investigate the Catholic Church’s cover-up of clerical sexual abuse

The case for it winning: The question of how so many people allowed themselves to be complicit in these crimes for so long is one that deserves examining. Spotlight does that in a way that is understated and respectful of the victims while at the same time being riveting and insightful.

Cardinal sins

Spotlight would deserve to be seen for its message alone. But it’s also a fantastic piece of slowburn cinema.

Spotlight is probably the most depressing film of the year. Which given that this is the year Room came out is saying something. It recounts the investigation by journalists at the Boston Globe which uncovered the prevalence of clerical sexual abuse in the city. The message that this is a ‘super depressing film about abuse’ may not leave you desperate to see it. Nonetheless, you should.

That’s partly because it’s an important film.

Despite what one might assume from the plot, the main villains are not paedophile priests. True, the audience is left in no doubt about the damage they do. Nonetheless, this is the story of an investigation into abuse rather than the abuse itself. We hear about attacks secondhand and the details are not lingered on.

What is explored in depth is why these crimes were tolerated for so long. And by whom. The journalists depicted in Spotlight were not the first to expose abuse by members of the clergy. What they did do was show the lengths that Boston’s Catholic hierarchy went to prevent these abusers being prosecuted or otherwise exposed. Indeed, they generally just sent them to new parishes to harm new victims.

Spotlight strongly suggests that it was common knowledge in Boston that a large number of priests were a danger to children. But in a city where Catholicism was an important social glue, many establishment figures felt it was better to leave this truth unspoken. The film repeatedly shows the subtle but nonetheless substantial pressure placed on anyone contemplating bringing these private traumas into the public eye. That presents the viewer with an awkward question: in a similar situation would I choose to speak or to be silent?

However, I don’t want to suggest you should see Spotlight out of a sense of duty. Despite its grim subject matter, it’s a compelling procedural. A combination of excellent directing, cinematography and acting make it a compelling watch.

Ruffalo and McAdams deserve their Oscar nominations, and Keaton is hard done by not to have received one. But Liev Schreiber as their editor is the real standout.

The filmakers do especially well to maintain an even pace and tone. The horror of the situation is almost inexpressably vast yet it not something like says 9/11 that forms in a nightmarish moment. It was decades in the making and was revealed slowly and carefully by people whose occupation requires them to eschew melodrama. To make that as riveting as it is the ultimate in slowburn cinema.

Verdict: 9/10 – Not only the year’s most depressing film but also one of its most important and engaging.