The Oscar hopeful Spotlight, which hits theaters November 6, tells the story of a tenacious team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who unraveled the Catholic priest abuse scandal back in the early aughts. The based-on-true-events film is a suspenseful thriller, positing newspapers as a powerful force for democracy and justice within their communities. It’s also, for those of us in today’s journalism industry, extremely hot.
“Having been a newspaperman for 13 years, this was porn—in the best possible way,” said David Simon, creator of The Wire and Show Me a Hero, Wednesday night. Simon was moderating a discussion with the film’s real-life reporting heroes after a screening at the Investigative Film Festival in Washington, DC. “My wife was in newspapers. When it gets weird for us, we tie each other up and read our clips to each other,” he said. “You come home and you find us getting naked to this.”
To show the real-life drudgery that goes into unmasking a scandal of that scale—nationwide, over 1,200 priests were accused of abuse by the end of 2002—writer-director Tom McCarthy’s film spends a lot of time getting down and dirty with its reporters. That means following them around on their riveting quest for key internal church documents, which hold the power to create a bulletproof indictment of an entire system of abuse. “We very quickly stumbled across the fact that this was the tip of a very large iceberg,” as Walter “Robby” Robinson, then-editor of the paper’s Spotlight team, put it. (Robinson is portrayed in the film by Michael Keaton.) It being 2001, those documents are, for the most part, made of paper. As in, the substance you’re not reading this on right now.
The film doesn’t just capture the paper-filled world of old-school newspaper journalism—it downright fetishizes it. Spreadsheets, notepads, high school yearbooks, archdiocese directories. Reporters scribbling. Printing presses printing. Readers reading. Paper rifled through, marked up, lovingly caressed. Almost all of the film’s key revelations take the form of one character soberly handing a file folder or newspaper clip to another. It’s almost like the Internet—but physical!
In Spotlight, paper stands in for a bygone era: a golden age for local and investigative journalism, when more newspapers had the time and resources to lavish on monthslong investigations, back before journalists had to train our eyes firmly on web traffic and Twitter followers. Today, that kind of journalism is “an endangered species,” as then-Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (who’s portrayed by John Slattery) put it during the panel discussion.
Michael Rezendes, who’s played by Mark Ruffalo in the film, chimed in: “Investigative reporting is in danger, but there are papers and reporters who are still doing it,” he said. “I’m still on the Globe Spotlight team.”
And the film, Simon pointed out, makes paper exciting. “Paper is death,” Simon added. “The only thing worse is to be filming people having phone conversations.” (Don’t worry, Spotlight has plenty of those too.) “Somehow the film conveys that so beautifully.”
“Maybe this is just me,” he cracked. “Maybe this is my porn problem.”