Sunday, November 29, 2015

The Garden of Truth: Film Turns the Spotlight on Reporting



            I've never had any connection to the Boston Globe Spotlight team, and not very much to the big office building on Morrissey Boulevard where a good piece of the action takes place in the film ("Spotlight") named after the newspaper's reporting team. While working for fourteen years as a freelance reporter for the Globe, I've never been a staff member and always worked from home. And few reporters anywhere get to work with the freedom and support provided to the Globe team that investigated the story of how child abuse by Boston priests that was systematically covered up under the rug by Boston Catholic Church hierarchy.
            The film, pretty much universally acclaimed, doesn't need another favorable review. But based on my own experience of how newspapers work, I can't help thinking it may be the best investigative "procedural" film ever made.
            That term "procedural" is generally applied to films or TV shows about police investigations. I have no experience of police work and even as reporter when it came to police stories crime I did little more than speak to police chiefs. My idea of a "crime" story is somebody knocking down a building that should have been saved; or developing a property that should be preserved in its natural state. But how many times have you heard a police officer say, "It's not like in the movies"?
            Newspaper work, at least some of time, is like what you see in "Spotlight."
            We see reporters walking swiftly alongside nervous sources, trying to keep up while scribbling notes in an open notebook. The omission here is a shot of the reporter desolately staring at the notebook later, unable to make heads or tails of some notation she's sure is crucially important. 
            We see reporters connecting with sources, then carefully working up to voicing what must be some of the most sensitive questions in the world, desiring to be sensitive, but needing at some point to be direct and even blunt.
            We see the actor portraying then-new editor Marty Baron dealing with initial resistance from a senior editorial team who knew the city, as he did not yet, to the idea of investigating the "system" of covering up sexual abuse of children by parish priests by transferring them, hiding them on sick leave, paying off families who make complaints, and exploiting their long-held faith in the Catholic church keep quiet about truths that wrecked lives.
            We see the reporting team led by Walter Robinson committing to the story as they begin to connect dots, in part by following up leads their own paper had failed to pursue in the past. We see the actor playing reporter Matt Carroll (the only member of the team I ever worked with) pursuing a paper trail in an ill-lit basement library to find records that substantiated a pattern of parish transfers and leaves of absence, suggesting which priests the archdiocese was protecting and then returning -- as known child abusers -- to contact with children. From what I knew of Matt, he is that kind of determined digger.
            Film is a dramatic medium. An investigation that took many months would not have "felt" dramatic in the way the concision of the film's artful storytelling creates a powerful experience for the movie's viewers.
            I confess that the resultant Spotlight team story did not appear that important at the time. Didn't we already know that priests were abusing children? Well, we did know of a few instances, but before the team's work nobody really knew the full extent of the story. One of the film's most effective moments comes at the very end where successive otherwise blank screens list the names of the all the American dioceses, and then all the countries of the world, that discovered similar cover-ups of the same crimes against their own children, following the Globe's reports.
            It was a story that had to be told.