I always watch the Academy Awards, and if they run long I don’t care; but Sunday night was the first time I felt I had skin in the game. When Spotlight was named best picture, I hollered; so did my wife. But to my surprise, before the night was over I was on Facebook defending Spotlight against a journalist who thought it wasn’t “half as good a movie” as All the President’s Men.
Monday morning I went back on Facebook and found another journalist, my friend Ted Cox, ripping Spotlight as “really nothing more than a well-made two-hour TV drama.” Ted went on, “To quote the Mekons, however, ‘Turning journalists into heroes takes some doing,’ and so it gets the Oscar.”
I’m going to give Ted the benefit of the doubt and assume he was jumping at an excuse to quote the Mekons. Daily Herald movie critic Dann Gire chimed in after Cox with “An excellent, right-on evaluation. Expert craftsmanship, nothing artsy,” and he gets the benefit of the doubt too because I agree with him. Artsiness would have ruined Spotlight. The film triumphs because there isn’t a self-indulgent second in it.
As good as All the President’s Men was, it was a procedural in which movie stars did star turns playing media stars, and journalists lapped it up. Rich Nixon, the ancient boogieman, had finally gone down in flames, and preening reporters admired themselves (whether they had anything to do with the Watergate coverage or not) as hounds of heaven and/or masters of the universe. It was a heady time.
In 2001, as the newspaper industry was collapsing, the Boston Globe took on the local Catholic Church. Many of the reporters were Catholics. They worked carefully and mournfully, and among their motivations was shame at not having done this work already. The crime they pursued wasn’t politics—it was pedophilia! Its culprits weren’t pols—they were priests! No doubt an Ingmar Bergman could have added stirring “wrestling with God” symbolism that in some critics’ eyes would have nailed down the case for Oscar. But sin doesn’t need gilding with poetry.
And Oscars aren’t chosen by anyone who has any particular reason to care whether journalists are turned into heroes or not. But many of Hollywood’s tradesmen might have concluded that making a movie about pedophilia that neither exploited the topic nor soft-peddled it was a tougher (and vastly more important) feat to pull off than any of the CGI effects of Mad Max: Fury Road or The Revenant.
All the President’s Men brought young journalists into the business because the work looked so powerful and exciting. Today the business is shattered. Yet idealistic young journalists continue to knock on its door, prepared to work for next to nothing because they believe the work to be honorable and purposeful. Better than I ever could, Spotlight makes the case that they’re right.