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Review: SPOTLIGHT and the state of Investigative Journalism.

There was a time when news journalism was considered a noble profession.

When investigative journalists had the foresight, integrity and tenacity to seek the truth and report about social injustices, highlighting corrupt institutions and corrupt governments. When it was the role of newspapers and the media to hold people in power accountable.

Watching the movie ‘Spotlight’ shows the profession in its glory days – and it stands as a grand love-letter to old-school investigative journalism.



Based on true events, it’s a gripping account of three investigative reporters and their Editor (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’Arcy James) who work as the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe, and with the help of their New Editor-in-Chief (played with calm but powerful restraint by Liev Schreiber), they uncover the horrible truth about the Catholic church, and it’s mishandling of sexual misconduct by a large group of Catholic Priests on young children.

Director Tom McCarthy plays everything down in this movie – for maximum effect. From the rather dull look of the actors to the drabby looking Boston Globe office, this is done for good reason  –  because it’s the investigative story that he wants to highlight, and bring up to the ‘spotlight’. And it’s quite a harrowing story. It was great to see how these investigative journalists work the story from different angles – putting the hard questions to the Cardinal, Archdiocese, Church lawyers right through to the actual victims – searching for connections and clues in the tiniest of details.

In fact, it was just wonderful to see what ‘good’ journalism is, and how its’ actually done. (Note: There’s a hint of a gripe coming on. Don’t worry. That will come later).

A sublime ensemble cast plays the full stack here. Michael Keaton was great in ‘Birdman’ – he’s even better here as the Editor of the Spotlight team. Liev Schrieber is also brilliant as new Editor-In-Chief Marty Baron. Not to mention Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Stanley Tucci whos’ great as the battle-worn but able defence lawyer for the victims.

In fact, everyone is brilliant in this film. If there was an Oscar Award for best ensemble cast – these guys would easily win it.

The film reminded me a lot of other great movies about the inner-workings of investigative journalism. the 1976 film ‘All The Presidents’ Men’ starring Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman is still the best movie about the profession.


Other good films on the subject is the excellent ‘The Insider‘ starring Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, ‘State Of Play’, Ron Howards’ light hearted ‘The Paper’ and ‘Frost/Nixon’, and even David Finchers’ ‘Zodiac’ detail the daily routine of the newsroom and its’ reporters. Most of this pain-staking work is an endless routine of phone calls, door knocking, researching, ploughing through directories, more phone calls, bad coffee drinking, more door knocking, fast note-taking and furious typing.

Put this rather boring and monotonous exercise in the hands of good film-makers who are great at their craft, and it’s makes for really dramatic and compelling movies.

‘Spotlight’ is dramatic and compelling but certainly not a flashy or showy film. And it doesn’t need to be. The story is powerful enough. The accurate, no-thrills portrayal makes it all the more real and authentic. But for me, it’s the dogged pursuit of these journalists to get the real truth on record, and on paper is the thing that’s great to see – on screen.

Because in todays’ news media landscape, that part of journalism is a becoming a dying art form.

So, here’s the gripe. And this is off the record.

After watching Spotlight, and then coming home to see what type of ‘real’ news and current affairs is on offer here, what do we get? Stuff, The Herald, One Network News, Seven Sharp, Story, TV3 news…

Scout.co.nz?  What the (insert f word here).

The investigative journalism programmes (John Campbell Live, Third Degree, 3D Investigates) have all been scrapped –  for what Mediaworks’ CEO Mark Weldon calls; more ‘snackable content’ of news and information.

‘North & South’ and ‘The Listener ‘still try for the big investigative stories  – but they’re playing in a hard-fought media landscape. The mainstream TV networks seem to endlessly numb the viewer into submission – who end up watching more tabloid gossip, programmes about what the super-rich eat (sick), Lip-Sync battles, Masterchef programmes for Africa, More home renovation programmes for people who actually can’t afford a first home, X Factor and sordid tales of what the Kardashians are up to.

And when it comes to news and current affairs, the TV networks serve it up as takeaway fast food. Light and fluffy. Cheap and nasty. Terrible but tasty. Seven and sharp. Easy to digest, ‘snackable content’.

In a word, crap.

In some cases, the newspaper online sites are just as worse. With misleading and ambigious headlines with trivial stories that belong more on a Womens’ Weekly magizine than a daily newspaper.

Some papers still throw out a bone of an interesting investigative article or two. (Sunday Star Times just had a good story on Pacific Island Rugby players just yesterday).

It’s just we don’t see that type of investigative news so much anymore.

Watching ‘Spotlight’ brought me back to a time when investigative journalism was the real voice of the news, when news reporters kept their nose to the ground, sniffing and hunting for a good story, and not hunting to become a celebrity with their own TV breakfast programme, selling mugs and notebooks of their face.

Where reporters and the news media actually gave a damn about people, not profit, uncovering the truth, and not align themselves to corporate and government interests.

Even though it doesn’t seem to be the case these days – I hope that in some newsrooms today there’s a group of investigative journalists who actually try to seek out the real stories that need telling.

Noble and hard-working journalists – like those portrayed in  the terrific ‘Spotlight’.


Note: If you want to hear a good piece about the state of NZ Journalism, check out Wallace Chapmans’ great interview with 3D reporters Paula Penfold and Eugene Bingham from his Sunday report and now playing on the Radio New Zealand website: http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/sunday/audio/201786577/paula-penfold-and-eugene-bingham-the-past-present-and-future-of-journalism

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This entry was posted on February 1, 2016 by .
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