“Spotlight” is a story of an exposé of child sexual abuse perpetrated by Catholic priests. Simultaneously, the film is also about the peril of investigative journalism, the media’s heartbeat that is often regarded as democracy’s fourth pillar to keep those with power in check.
From a Screen Actors Guild Award for best ensemble to Academy nominations for Best Supporting Actor and Actress, the cast of “Spotlight” has enjoyed several accolades and endless recognition.
Their legacy continued on Friday, Feb. 5 through the bestowment of the Santa Barbara International Film Festival’s (SBIFF) 2016 American Riviera Award to stars Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo. Presented by co-writer/director Tom McCarthy, the award not only honors the careers of these actors but also highlights the film as a love letter to investigative journalism and proof of its necessity in society
“These towns, these local communities, these cities … these need strong investigative journalism,” McCarthy told the Daily Nexus, “They need some institution (i.e. the paper there) holding powerful individuals accountable.”
Indeed, that is what our society needs, but regrettably in today’s Internet age, employment cuts within the newsroom are hardly surprising. Surveys by the American Society of News Editors and the Pew Research Center estimate a 36 percent decline from daily newspaper editorial jobs since its peak in 1989.
The state of investigative journalism is even more worrying. With the exorbitant amount of time and intricate research required to expose an issue — not to mention potential dead ends and legal battles — investigative writers are often the first to go. Reputable papers with award-winning investigative reporting projects such as Denver-serving Rocky Mountain News and national publications Newsweek and Time have either closed up shop or laid off most of these reporters.
“Spotlight” follows four investigative reporters and their uncovering of a widespread scandal concerning child sex abuse and cover-up within a powerful institution, the Roman Catholic Church. These journalists, who were part of The Boston Globe’s investigative unit named Spotlight, and their media take a stand for justice and for reporting that won’t tolerate abuse by power-wielding individuals and institutions.
“‘Spotlight’ has given a voice to all the survivors and has become a call to action for pursing justice around the world in regards to this issue,” said Mark Ruffalo, who was a late cancellation due to personal family matters, in an apologetic and appreciative video message that kicked off the event. “And being part of a truly beautiful ensemble cast with real chemistry was such a phenomenal experience for me and such a rare experience.”
The film has had an incredible and poignant impact on the institutions, people and stories it portrays. Just last Thursday on Feb. 4, a Vatican commission on clerical sex abuse held a private screening of “Spotlight” on the eve of its three-day meeting at a church residence in central Rome.
The day before on Feb. 3rd, SBIFF’s Executive Director Roger Durling himself published a column in the Hollywood Reporter, opening up about his traumatic experiences as a victim of priest child abuse and how movies saved his life by allowing him to feel vindicated. It’s a notion he continued to uphold as he moderated a discussion between Keaton, who plays editor Walter “Robby” Robinson, and McAdams, who portrays reporter Sacha Pfeiffer.
“Film can help us not to feel alone because we’re all in the dark experiencing the same emotions and same things that are being projected on the screen,” said Durling. “What’s amazing about ‘Spotlight’ to me is that it’s more than just a film, it’s a cry of victory.”
When asked if she knew what the outcome of the film would be, McAdams expressed that she didn’t. Though shocked at first in realizing how little she knew about the issue, she also recognized the need to tell the story.
“The more I got into it, the more I realized you sort of can’t tell the story enough,” said McAdams. “So it became a no-brainer to do it regardless of the outcome and I’m so grateful that this is the outcome.”
The evening took a trip down memory lane with clips from Keaton’s and McAdams’s most memorable films, including segments from “Mean Girls” and “Birdman.” Both stars have played an array of roles, but still manage to maintain honesty in approaching their characters, Durling notes, particularly praising McAdams’s empathetic yet driven interviewing method with the victims in “Spotlight.”
“I really took the lead from Sacha herself because Sacha is such an incredible listener,” said McAdams. “She just has an amazing ability to get people to open up.”
Keaton, for his part, spent a lot of time with Robby in order to nail his character, keeping a keen eye on his mannerisms, his Boston accent and the solid way he held himself. However, he did not predict the depth and wide-ranging scope of the film’s significance either.
“In terms of its impact, one would be, I think, presumptuous and extremely egotistical to think anything more than this is just a good thing to be a part of,” said Keaton. “You just go and do your best.”
Keaton’s own impressive filmography includes two others — Ron Howard’s “The Paper” and Mick Jackson’s “Live from Baghdad” — in which he also plays the role of a reporter. A self-described news junkie, Keaton had once considered a career in journalism (having taken one or two classes in college), and, though he settled on acting, he never lost his journalistic curiosity.
“When you’re dealing with news or journalism, which for me makes it exciting not just as an actor but also in life, it’s humming,” said Keaton. “There’s a frequency. When something’s reverberating, you can feel it because it’s true.”
Sure enough, the newsrooms drew Keaton back in as he relays his plan to head back to his hometown of Pittsburgh with Robinson to speak to the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, as well as to screen “Spotlight” and help fundraise for the paper.
“They’ve got a great editor there who I think was at The Boston Globe,” said Keaton. “And he’s trying not to lay people off.”
This situation plays out all newsrooms with editors desperate to keep their staff intact amidst dwindling funds and readership. “Spotlight” itself addresses this issue when newly hired editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) of The Boston Globe expresses his concern to Walter “Robby” Robinson (Keaton) about declining subscription numbers and the Internet’s breach and disrupt into the classified business.
“So you anticipate more cuts?” asks Robby.
“I would assume so, yes, but what I’m more focused on right now is finding a way to make this paper essential to its readers,” answers Baron.
“I like to think it already is.”
“Fair enough. I just think we can do better.”
Unfortunately, that’s a conundrum with no easy fix. After more than a decade of news media decline and many attempts later, we are still searching for ways to “do better.” Furthermore, most child sexual abuses don’t end with just an exposé. Society constantly needs watchdog journalists to follow up. That’s a tall order now as many newsrooms in America are being held together by only shoestrings and bandages.