COMMENTARY: There’s a moment in almost every movie when people in the audience who really know the line of work depicted on screen cry out in frustration and say: “Oh, come on!” “Absurd.” “Never happens.”
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.
“Spotlight” opens with the arrival of Marty Baron, a veteran journalist who took over at the Globe after a stint as editor of the Miami Herald. As investigative reporters know well, Florida is a reporters’ paradise, lousy with graft, corruption and colorful characters. The state’s public records laws are decisively tilted toward openness. When a Globe columnist covering the Geoghan trial wrote that “the truth may never be known,” Baron sat down with the head of the “Spotlight” team, Walter “Robby” Robinson, and asked him to take a fresh look at the issue.
The editor suggested filing a lawsuit to force release of records the Catholic Church had submitted under court seal. Such suits were unheard of in Massachusetts. Liev Schreiber, the actor who portrays Baron, captures the true life editor’s white-hot focus and intensity, so much so that long-time colleagues were taken aback by the resemblance.
The movie accurately depicts the team’s key early breakthrough. The reporters figured out that priests who had “acted out” with children were often listed in the diocese’s phone book as on leave. They obtained years of directories and pored through thousands of entries to create a database, using the then-remarkable new technology known as a computer spreadsheet. With artful editing and a stirring score, director Tom McCarthy made this excruciatingly boring work an inspiring event, which in a way it was.
Another turning point came when Sacha Pfeiffer, the Globe reporter played by Rachel McAdams, knocks on the door of a priest who off-handedly acknowledges that he has abused children. (He asserts, bizarrely, that his conduct was not improper because he was not sexually aroused.) The reporter is clearly flustered and unprepared for this admission and she rushes through the interview before a woman at the house can slam the door. The practice of “door stopping” is routine for investigative journalists; nearly all such encounters end in failure. But the few attempts that succeed deliver an adrenalin kick unlike anything in reporting.
Fascinatingly, one of the more compelling scenes about journalism in the movie was invented by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, the screenwriters who worked closely with the reporters and editors involved the story.
It comes late in the film, after the “Spotlight” team has figured out that scores of Boston-area priests had abused children. Eric MacLeish, a lawyer for the victims, angrily tells Robinson that he sent the Globe a list of 20 priests “and you buried it.” Soon after, the reporters come across a story that ran deep inside the Globe’s metro section when Robinson was in charge of local coverage.
The writers came across the buried story when they interviewed MacLeish as part of their research for the film. They seized on it as the perfect way to illustrate the Globe’s earlier failures to investigate an important local institution. The conversation between MacLeish and Robinson is fictional. But the sentiments portrayed in the movie are real. “It happened on my watch and I’ll go to confession on it,” the Robinson told Entertainment Weekly. “Like any journalist who’s been around this long, I’ve made my share of mistakes.”
In investigative reporting, of course, nearly all great stories are screamingly obvious in retrospect. The reporting and documents the Globe obtained through its lawsuit proved that Church leaders had knowingly shuffled around pedophile priests from parish to parish. Geoghan turned out to be a piece of a much, much larger story, one that has rippled across the United States and the world over the past 15 years. Baron has pointed out that the movie is not a stenographic record of how the investigation unfolded. But it gets the big things right, providing a compelling picture of how great reporters break big stories.
Stephen Engelberg is ProPublica’s editor-in-chief and served as founding managing editor from 2008-2012.