Three things to know about 'Spotlight,' the new movie about journalists investigating clergy sexual abuse

I saw "Spotlight" over the weekend and loved it.

Of course, I'm a journalist, so I obviously would appreciate a film in which all the actors dress as crummily as me.

Seriously, I identify with the reporters and editors who meticulously dig to tell an important story. They knock on doors to interview key players, sue for access to crucial court documents and develop relationships with inside sources.   

With cheap ink pens and notepads as their major tools, they change the world. That's journalism at its best.

For Godbeat watchers, here are three important things to know about "Spotlight":

1. It's a great movie.

A Wall Street Journal reviewer gushed:

To turn a spotlight fittingly on “Spotlight,” it’s the year’s best movie so far, and a rarity among countless dramatizations that claim to be based on actual events. In this one the events ring consistently — and dramatically — true.
The film was directed by Tom McCarthy from a screenplay he wrote with Josh Singer. It takes its title from the name of the Boston Globe investigative team that documented, in an explosive series of articles in 2002, widespread child abuse by priests in the Catholic archdiocese of Boston, and subsequent cover-ups by church officials. The impact of the series, which prompted the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and won a Pulitzer Prize for the paper, was cumulative and profound — what began as a local story ramified into an international scandal. Remarkably, Mr. McCarthy, his filmmaking colleagues and a flawless ensemble cast have captured their subject in all its richness and complexity. “Spotlight” is a fascinating procedural; a celebration of investigative reporting; a terrific yarn that’s spun with a singular combination of restraint and intensity; and a stirring tale, full of memorable characters, that not only addresses clerical pedophilia but shows the toll it has taken on its victims.

At the time of the Globe investigation, I was the religion editor for The Oklahoman, Oklahoma City's major daily. As the scandal spread nationwide, I recall reporting on failures in Oklahoma clergy abuse cases and making a quick trip to Dallas when Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating, a Catholic, was named to head a national review board for U.S. bishops.

2. It's a movie about great journalism.

The Poynter Institute's Bill Mitchell observed:

By the time the credits rolled, I had to agree with reviewers who’ve concluded that ink-stained, web-whipped wretches haven’t looked this good since "All The President’s Men." That’s true as a result of both similarities and differences in the two movies. It’s the differences that render "Spotlight" a must-see not only for journalists but for the people they serve.
"All the President’s Men" put a David and Goliath morality tale in the hands of hugely popular actors — Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards — who proceeded to make investigative reporting appear not only cool but wildly successful. The president resigned.
The stars of "Spotlight" — Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James — are just as cool but successful in different ways on a different stage.
"Spotlight" reveals just enough about the journalists to make them sympathetic, flawed and accessible. Their interactions with abuse survivors show them to be compassionate human beings as well as hard-charging investigators. Editors leading the charge in 2002 acknowledge failing to follow up on solid tips provided years before.
And unlike Watergate, a once-in-a-lifetime, only-in-Washington sort of blockbuster, clergy sexual abuse is a story that continues to unfold in hundreds of communities and newsrooms around the world. The film concludes, in fact, with a screen-after-screen list of cities and towns where the abuse drama erupted beyond Boston.

3. It's a movie, not actual journalism.

Journalism, of course, doesn't put words in people's mouths that they didn't say. 

Hollywood does — and did, as Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen noted Sunday:

“Spotlight,” the movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, had its general release on Friday and film critics agree: “Spotlight” is one of the best movies of the year.
Jack Dunn had a different reaction. After seeing the film at the Loews theater across from Boston Common, he stepped onto the sidewalk and threw up.
The movie sickened him because he is portrayed as someone who minimized the suffering of those who were sexually abused, as someone who tried to steer Globe reporters away from the story, as someone invested in the coverup.
“The things they have me saying in the movie, I never said,” Dunn said. “But worse is the way they have me saying those things, like I didn’t care about the victims, that I tried to make the story go away. The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims. It makes me look callous and indifferent.”

Later in the same column, Cullen pointed out:

Dunn isn’t the only real person portrayed in the film who has a beef with McCarthy. Steve Kurkjian, a legendary Globe reporter, is portrayed as a curmudgeon who was dismissive of the importance of the story. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and Kurkjian did some of the most important reporting as part of the team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing the coverup.
Kurkjian, a journalistic icon, is owed an apology, at least. So is Dunn, but he’s looking for more. A lot more. His lawyer sent a letter to the filmmakers, demanding that the offending scene be deleted from the movie, just as the movie hit hundreds of screens coast to coast.

So as closely as the basic storyline — and even the clothes — may reflect actual events, "Spotlight" is definitely a drama, not a documentary. And it's certainly a one-sided portrayal, with the journalists as heroes and the Catholic hierarchy as villains.

For their part, Catholic bishops are presenting the church in the most positive light as the movie hits theaters.

Boston Globe religion writer Lisa Wangsness reported earlier this month:

Roman Catholic Church leaders in the United States have sent talking points to dioceses around the country to help them prepare for the release of the movie “Spotlight,” highlighting the progress the church says it has made in preventing and responding to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
The US Conference of Catholic Bishops in September drew up the guidance and statistics in anticipation of the movie’s release, said Don Clemmer, a spokesman for the bishops. He said church leaders wanted dioceses to be ready to speak to victims who experienced pain with the release of the movie, and to show them — and the wider public — that the church has changed.

And in a similar report for The Washington Post, Godbeat pro Michelle Boorstein wrote:

“Spotlight,” a new film about the Catholic clergy abuse scandal’s explosion in 2002, begs the question: How are things different in 2015?
Dozens of U.S. church leaders have in the past few days been offering answers in the form of public statements, with some primarily focusing on the survivors and others casting the scandal as fully in the past and framing the church as the leader today in a society that hasn’t fully dealt with the problem.

For anyone interested in comparing the Hollywood version of "Spotlight" with the Globe's actual coverage of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, the Boston newspaper has a special webpage with a number of interesting links. Check out "The story behind the 'Spotlight' movie."

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