Over the course of time, many films have come and gone about the press and its volatile relationship to democracy and the public it serves. To many, All the Presidents Men remains the benchmark for exceptional storytelling in the investigative journalism field that went on to become a beloved masterwork of true-life drama and political intrigue.
Since then, every newspaper movie has to have a conspiracy, a cover-up, something hidden in plain view that no one dares bring up for either reasons of personal safety or the argument of “the greater good” of society better left not knowing about the filth lying beneath society’s mirror sheen, sometimes both. Movies such as Zodiac and Michael Mann’s excellent The Insider both deal with journalists as the diggers, the folks who latch onto a story and dedicate the whole of their lives, for better or worse, to seeing their stories through.
In late 2015, two films were released that dealt with journalistic events in the 21st century, both dealing with scandals that had repercussions in society, as well as the news field and the journalists who had to break the story.
Released first was Truth, covering the 60 Minutes Killian documents scandal, when, just before the 2004 election, CBS News Producer Mary Mapes ran a story that questioned George W. Bush’s National Guard duty in the 1970s. Acquiring questionable documents from a biased source who expected a political favor in return, the semi-anachronistic documents, once aired on television caused a major stink on conservative web-blogs, who lambasted the reporters and the network for airing such a questionable, scoop-worthy piece of glorified hear-say. This eventually led to CBS apologizing for the story and the termination of Mapes and accelerated resignation of Dan Rather, the legendary anchor who stood by Mapes as the controversy unfolded.
Spotlight dealt with the Boston Catholic child abuse scandal uncovered between 2001 and 2002 by the titular Boston Globe investigative team. The team, headed by “Robby” Robinson and overseen by incoming editor Marty Baron, follows up on various news clippings on abuse in parishes all over Boston, involving approximately 90 priests who were simply moved to different parishes to avoid scandal, only creating more issues of abuse.
The city officials and law offices refuse to participate with the team for the most part, leading the team to do most of the footwork themselves to interview victims and hunt through phonebooks and go door-to-door to ask about the priests involved. Eventually, thanks to some alliances made in the law offices and a miraculous legal loophole, they eventually manage to uncover damning documents that prove the Cardinal of Boston knew of the abuse and merely covered it up rather than dismissing his troublesome clergy.
While journalists have been portrayed as heroes in many titles, there is still a slight stigma on the news community as troublesome and prone to “scooping” for some publicity rather than the democratic principles journalism is expected to fulfill.
The 1981 drama Absence of Malice portrays a headstrong reporter (Sally Field) who goes to great, morally unethical lengths to get the first word on a juicy murder story that may just be damning an innocent businessman. Even Roger Ebert noted in his review for the film that Sally Field’s character “is a disgrace to her profession”. Other films such as the satirical Thank You for Smoking and the recently released ROOM feature journalist players that exploit their subjects in order to make names for themselves or simply to make it a “good story”, aka a ratings success.
While this may seem like a common trope of today, that is not quite the case, as journalists have been portrayed both as crusaders for democracy as well as scuzzy ratings fiends as long as the classics of old. In films such as Billy Wilder’s seminal Ace in the Hole, Citizen KANE, and the classic Sweet Smell of Success, journalists hound sources and stories until tragedy strikes their subjects and launches an even bigger scoop, that only serves to disgust the moral centers and further the careers of the scum who tackled the story; behold the dark side of capitalist journalism.
Meanwhile, classic films such as 1947 Best Picture-winner Gentleman’s Agreement and Deadline U.S.A. feature the typical champion reporters who risk it all to take down the corruption they see surrounding them, all for the sake of democracy. It’s still inspiring sometimes, to read about true-life heroism in the print, on-screen, and in your neighborhood.
To conclude, check out Spotlight if and when you get the chance. The movie is a great example of a near-flawless journalism picture that covers just how the work is done and the lengths reporters go in order to break a story that just needs to be told. The acting is spot-on, the drama effective, and the story is anger-inducing in the best of ways. The anger involved is specific to the wrong done to generations of Bostonians and other effected youth around the world. While Truth is certainly an interesting story to read about, the film presentation is a bit biased and not quite as involving as the Boston controversy. Here’s to more great journalism in the future…and movies, too!