*. Spotlight is a sad movie. Not so much because of the subject matter, which is depressing enough, but for the largely unspoken subtext.
*. That subtext is the death of the newspaper industry. Anyone who was in a newsroom during these years — and by “these years” I mean anytime in the twenty-first century — will recognize the funereal tone. The declining readerships. The constant rounds of buy-outs. The shrinking news hole. Newspapers were a sunset industry, and the sun was setting fast.
*. Despite this being the background to the story of Spotlight, and how often it gets mentioned by the real reporters in the supplemental materials contained on the DVD, it’s so lightly touched upon here as to barely be a subtext. I think the tough times are only adverted to, briefly, on a couple of occasions.
*. I don’t know if that was intentional or just part of Spotlight‘s general air of understatement. For the most part this is a quiet movie. Liev Schreiber seems to want to deliver all of his lines without moving his lips, and when Mark Ruffalo’s Mike Rezendes loses his cool near the end it strikes a jarring and I think artificial note. The thing is, journalists are professionals, and no matter how big the story they rarely allow themselves these dramatic moments.
*. I think it’s a shame Spotlight doesn’t do more to address the state-of-the-industry subtext more, as the rest of the film, despite being nicely handled all around, is pretty conventional. As with all such tales of intrepid newsmen breaking a big story, our heroes are up against a corrupt and seemingly all-powerful system. Think the government in All the President’s Men or the tobacco giants in The Insider. There’s a scene here where Stanley Tucci tries to explain to Ruffalo what he’s up against while sitting on a park bench (which is where all such conversations take place). The Church is too big. “They control everything.” We are just on the edge of the cinema of paranoia and the great ’70s conspiracy thrillers, only this time it’s real.
*. Of course the other big change in the news business has been the switch to using digital sources for news gathering. There’s a nice scene here that captures this that’s set in the “library,” which is in the basement of the news building. Nobody can find a light switch and the place smells because there’s a dead rat lying around somewhere. Remember those scenes of Woodward and Bernstein doing their library research in All the President’s Men? Well, this is what that has come to.
*. Such movies do at least help to remind us that there’s always a bigger story behind even the biggest stories we read or hear about in the news, and that hidden forces shape what gets reported in all sorts of different ways. The sad thing (yet another sad thing) is that we’ve become so cynical about news in an age of “fake news” and manufactured consent that such a message only undermines our shrinking confidence in journalism, even in a movie that champions the industry.
*. I like Spotlight, but I’m not that excited by it. The thing is, news dramas, like cop shows and medical shows, form a kind of triumvirate of can’t-miss material. That’s a big reason why they’re so popular on TV (the other reason being that they lend themselves so handily to the serial format). So it’s kind of hard to mess a movie like this up. But the screenplay here, which was on the Black List of best unproduced screenplays, doesn’t seem very special to me, and I have a hard time seeing what makes the film itself worthy of all its accolades (for example, winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards). I think it’s just the kind of movie that critics and award bodies feel they should get behind: socially conscious, relevant, and driven by its script and performances rather than by the latest technology. But beyond these admirable qualities I don’t think it’s anything special.