If someone were to tell me that a smaller film about journalism and the molestation scandal in the Catholic Church would take home the Best Picture Oscar, I would not have believed it. Yet, there was Tom McCarthy, writer and director of Spotlight (Anonymous Content / First Look Media / Participant Media, 2015), on stage last night at the end of the lengthy telecast thanking the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their generosity in awarding the film Oscar’s ultimate honor. It was truly a moment.
Why was it a moment?
Well, in a time when newspaper readership is in the dumper, a film about hardworking journalists succeeded in generating a discussion.
In a time when our culture is mired in gossip, infotainment and the cult of celebrity with those celebrities having done nothing to earn that status except star in their own sex tapes and reality television shows, real, deeper truth and character won out.
In a time when most people accept what they are fed by the endless social media stream instead of questioning everything, the questions emerged victorious.
In a time when a racist, misogynistic bully, a hater of journalists and the questions to which they demand answers, is winning the Republican nomination to be president, quiet, insistent intensity to uncover the truth won out over blowhards and obfuscators.
In a time when education is overloaded with standardized testing instead of real teaching creating a classroom where students are not challenged or even given the tools to think critically instead of accepting everything at face value, critical thinking and analysis surged to the forefront.
In the end, the narrative flourished, and filmmakers demonstrated that American cinema does not have to target the lowest common denominator in our society to be successful. Movies do not have to be packed with car chases, special effects, gore and bloodshed, or sex and sadomasochism to keep an audience. Filmmakers can simply tell a story and people will come to the feast.
The most important truth in the success of Spotlight is that a republic is only as healthy as its journalists. Journalism is the first draft of history, and an informed populace makes for a more democratic society. Journalists have taken so many hits of late—murdered by terrorists, beaten by angry mobs, raped in the middle of violent protests—that it is a wonder anyone takes a notebook and tries to report the truth anymore. It is a thankless, dangerous job that offers little financial reward.
As for the subject of the film, we are past the point of return on Catholic priests and the molestation scandal. The claims that this is all manufactured to bring down the institution simply do not hold credibility. The priests and those who obstructed justice to shield them—everyone from local bishops to cardinals to the popes—are a disgrace. The problem continues to be that they have tainted the whole organization. Many people are doing good work within the Church: Catholic school educators, those who work in various Catholic charities, those who slave away on Skid Row and in poverty relief efforts like the Catholic Worker organization. These groups and individuals suffer daily with the damaged reputation of the Church. Pope Francis has made a start to rectify the problem, but this systematic cancer must be rooted out.
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer did an excellent job of bringing the story to the screen and definitely deserved the Oscar for their screenplay. McCarthy is an actor—most notably in the final season of David Simon’s, The Wire (2002-2008) where he played a corrupt journalist. Singer was a former staff writer on The West Wing (1999-2006). Their film will take its place among other cinematic celebrations of journalism, including All The President’s Men, Frost/Nixon, and the documentary, Page One: Inside The New York Times. Spotlight is docu-drama at its best with engrossing dialog and an involving narrative that demands the viewer’s full attention. There are no car chases, shootouts, or special effects. It is just a devastating story well told.
Who would have thought that a film challenging one of the biggest and most labyrinthine organizations in the world while celebrating the disappearing art of the journalist would come out on top of the heap of many deserving films from 2015? In hindsight, however, it is obvious the academy chose well.