Spotlight Puts the Focus on Investigative, Convincing, and Patient Journalists

Nune Hakhverdyan

Art critic, journalist

The 2016 Academy Awards unexpectedly pushed to the forefront a film that has at its core the journalism profession and particularly the value of investigative journalism.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences awarded Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay to Spotlight, a film that had little chance of becoming mainstream. It can even be said that it’s an “anti-blockbuster” film, since the action in the film is intentionally reduced to nil and the special effects are absent; instead, there is more dialogue and descriptions of routine and at-first-glance unappealing journalistic work.

Awarding the prime statuette to such a leisurely-paced film with a very traditional (even old-fashioned) structure and even more traditional message was an unexpected and principled decision, which offers new emphases on not only film production, but also media production. 

“Spotlight” is the name of The Boston Globe‘s investigative journalism unit — a team that can permit itself to spend months and even years on one investigation. Time is the “Spotlight” journalists’ weapon, helping them to collect, examine, and develop the topic from all possible perspectives and calculate all possible consequences.

In 2001, this team turned its attention to a very sensitive topic that was already published and briefly reported on: cases of child sexual abuse and violence by Roman Catholic priests. And it turns out that for several decades, these incidents were regularly becoming the focus of public attention, but each time they were suppressed by the church and its attorneys.

The film is based on real events: many of the people in the film appear with their real names and their real life experience; as a result, the film approaches the genre of docudrama but at the same time is a very relevant story — interesting from today’s perspective.

The Globe‘s chief editor Martin Baron and attorney Mitchell Garabedian of Armenian origin are real people.

Four journalists, their roles played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James, at the behest of their new editor began an investigation going in several directions at once, speaking to the victims, church representatives, various attorneys and representatives of the court system.

You have to agree that pedophile clerics, sexually abused children, and a corrupt system are topics that might ensure both a veil of scandal and an extremely high degree of sentimentality for any film. In Spotlight, you’ll find neither of these.

Everything follows a pace that is restrained, intelligent, competent, and in work mode, without a concentration of color and emotion (director Tom McCarthy is completely free of this temptation). 

Instead of shocking scenes, heartbreaking stories, and the torments of pedophile defenders, the film proposes examining the definition of journalism.

Journalism is patience and a readiness to delve into a topic. From a visual perspective, a journalist’s job is a boring process: documents, excavations in faded newspapers, searches for sources and conversations with sources, documents again, questions sent to the court, questions again and documents again… And until one piece connects to another, and a sufficient amount of evidence and testimonies are gathered.

Even when journalists in the film with their notebook and pen in hand (pay attention: not audio recorders) speak to the victims and survivors of violence, they very delicately bypass emotional outbursts. Of course, they sympathize and are concerned, but every second they’re gathering information.

And the best tool for gathering information is the ability to listen. 

The journalists in the film listen. They listen patiently and purposefully. They listen and convince us that information is public property and must be made public, despite the fact that it contains pain and a sense of injustice and is akin to airing one’s dirty laundry in public. They convince even in those instances when the victims aren’t ready to open up their past before the media.

The journalists don’t rush, don’t get thrilled to be touching upon a “heated” issue, but rather collect the bigger picture piece by piece. It’s interesting that in the film many of the journalists are lacking charm, they’re not even masters, just usual, good experts in unusual circumstances. 

Repeated often throughout the film is the idea that the investigation is not against the church but the system. One of the main characters says what is most troubling is that terrible things happen in the city while the city looks the other way, pretending nothing extraordinary has happened. 

Spotlight launches a new quality of dramaturgy: it doesn’t make journalistic investigation into a film genre, but through a journalistic investigation it speaks about public hygiene. Journalists are the best (perhaps also only) custodians of hygiene particularly in those instances when information appears locked and has been concealed for years.

And in those cases, in order to have clean public relations, it’s necessary to publish everything. In addition to that, to act in such a way that the topic doesn’t once again turn into an uproar, astonish, but never reaching an outcome, disappear.

In Spotlight, there is one symbolic dialogue. One of the senior clergymen, who is trying to convince the journalists to stay away from an investigation discrediting the church, says it’s best when the Church and the media work together. The journalist responds, it’s right when media work independently.

Free of shocking intrigue and on the contrary, mitigating what intrigue there is, and presenting a scandal in the rhythm of everyday working life, Spotlight from the perspective of ordinary movie-goers is boring. The problem is that we’re not used to watching films that don’t have spectacular scenes and that focus on the details. 

Spotlight‘s success is the effect of engagement. The Oscar-winning film offers viewers to get involved in the story just as the team of journalists is involved in its complex and controversial investigation.

Nune Hakhverdyan

The views expressed in the column are those of the author's and do not necessarily reflect the views of Media.am.

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