Aidan Smith: Spotlight shows journalism as it really is

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo are among the stars in the movie Spotlight, and so is good old-fashioned newspaper reporting. Picture: contributed
Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo are among the stars in the movie Spotlight, and so is good old-fashioned newspaper reporting. Picture: contributed
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FOR some, this new film is a hard-hitting exposé, for others, including Aidan Smith, it’s a welcome taste of real life

All over the land right now, journalists who don’t get out much anymore and who maybe don’t get to practice journalism anymore either, are shuffling into multiplexes to see a film called Spotlight. It’s a movie about their inky trade and has been hailed as the finest there’s been. And I don’t think I’m the only hack who, many times, is having cause to cradle his Kia-Ora reassuringly and say to himself: “Thank goodness Tom Cruise didn’t get anywhere near this.”

To choose one of those moments at random: some of the staff of Spotlight – the name of the Boston Globe’s in-house investigative reporting unit – are ensconced in the library. It’s going to be another grinding night of fact-checking, the journos slowly disappearing under mounds of yellowing cuttings. But if this had been a Cruise flick we could expect the slog to be interrupted by urgent tapping. The action hero, dangling upside down on a length of typewriter ribbon, would be attempting a daring break-in. You’d hope the response of the others would be: “Why are you trying to come in the window, you idiot? This is a public building – the door’s open.”

I saw Spotlight with my good friend Rab, a fellow journalist who I’ve known since our scribbling was either gold-starred or chucked back at us – usually the latter – in English composition class at school. As the film’s photocopiers whirred, we purred. Whenever a reporter on screen jotted down testimony in a notebook, we drew the shorthand outlines in our heads (me Pitman’s, Rab Teeline – I’ve always been faster than him). What a pair of saddos. But we did wonder: what’s anyone else getting out of this?

The film is brazenly unshowy, heroically procedural. There is no wham or indeed bam. No car chases, no romance. More than having abseiling written into his contract, Cruise also demands that he gets to run in all his movies. Only one of the journalists sprints in Spotlight, when he’s worried a rival paper could beat him to some just-released files. And the same man delivers the film’s solitary grandstanding speech: “We’re gonna nail these guys and let ‘em know that nobody gets away with it, not a priest or a cardinal or a frickin’ Pope!”

The “it” – this is a true story, uncovered in 2002 – was the systematic concealment of almost 100 paedophile priests by the Catholic Church in Boston, a scandal which rippled round the world. This would make the film a tough watch for some people, and maybe shots of journalists unspectacularly going about their jobs would also make it a boring one as well. But after all the other portrayals we in the profession have had to endure down the decades, I have to say: about bloody time.

Back in 2010 someone estimated there had been 1,000 films featuring journalists. Really? That sounds like the kind of figure which can be plucked out of the air on a slow Tuesday, safe in the knowledge no-one will bother to question it, but which ultimately gives real journalism a bad name. If accurate, though, the total presumably doesn’t include those movies where we were mere conduits for a story who were used and spat out, bumped off in the second reel – and never mind all the classic Warner Bros gangster flicks featuring spinning headlines hot off the press while the stiffs in the latest tommy-gun carnage were still warm.

The rat-tat-tat of journalistic patter – we all continue to speak in such a manner, honest – drove many a screwball comedy in the early days of the Hollywood talkies, most notably The Front Page and His Girl Friday. Journalists back then used to be painted as heroes, which may have been down so many screenwriters being ex-newspapermen.

After the Second World War, movies got darker – the era of film noir – but James Stewart was still playing a fearless reporter springing innocent men from prison. That one was called Northside 777, which was how an old colleague – one of journalism’s characters – used to answer the phone. He borrowed the tagline from another film of the period to sum up especially slow Tuesdays: “There are eight million stories in The Naked City – we’ve got nane o’ them.” And when the newsroom switched to computers and got quieter, he didn’t – a renegade woodpecker who clacked away on his typewriter and might have fancied Hollywood producing his biopic but had to make do with his name being given to one of the conquests of a wandering nymphomaniac in a washed-up journo mate’s schlocky attempt at fiction-writing beyond the usual falsified expenses claims.

Speaking of washed-up journos, the ultimate performance was by Kirk Douglas in Ace in the Hole, for keeping the victim of a cave collapse underground so he could keep his byline on front pages nationwide. Few films noir in the paranoiac 1950s were blacker than that one, although The Sweet Smell of Success featuring Burt Lancaster’s brutal gossip-columnist – whose catchphrase for the entrapment of yet another poor sucker was “The cat’s in the bag, the bag’s in the river” – ran it close.

Disreputable, borderline criminal, willing to sell their grannies for a story – these were the only journalists on celluloid for a long time. We had to wait for the hacks-as-heroes of All the President’s Men but they didn’t exactly start a rush. And maybe, not to excuse Hollywood for this, its negative view of the profession was down to the journos it was encountering first-hand: the hedge-snoopers, the trash can-rakers and the film-junket sycophants.

Hooray, then, for Spotlight which celebrates good old-fashioned diligence and unsexy research. The film already seems like a relic – few newspapers can afford to devote two years to stories anymore – but the results can still be sensational. Remarkably in what is the post-Leveson age, the UK Press Gazette reported last week that trust in journalists is at a 30-year high. The cat may be in the bag but it’s not yet a goner.