Entertainment & Arts

Oscar contender Spotlight upsets the balance of power

Liev Schreiber, Brian d'Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Michael Keaton attend the Spotlight New York premiere Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption A star-studded ensemble cast including (from left to right) Liev Schreiber, Brian d'Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and Michael Keaton play out the groundbreaking story of the Boston Globe team who exposed a major sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church

Spotlight is the bookies' favourite to take best film at this year's Oscars, over Leonardo Di Caprio's western The Revenant.

The movie, which has six Academy Award nominations compared to The Revenant's 12, is all about upsetting the balance of power.

The film focuses on a piece of groundbreaking journalism that rocked the foundations of the Catholic Church in 2002, when four reporters, the investigative Spotlight team of the Boston Globe newspaper, ran an expose on how the church had covered up sexual abuse by more than 70 priests in the Boston area.

The story would lead, not only to the resignation of Boston's Cardinal, but to the uncovering of further abuse in 102 cities in the USA, and 105 dioceses worldwide.

Stanley Tucci, who plays a lawyer representing victims of abuse, describes the script as "no fuss, no fat, no fluff - there's no love story or distraction from the purpose of the movie, which is to tell the story of the investigation".

Spotlight is directed by actor and writer Tom McCarthy, best known for his part as Scott Templeton in The Wire. And Tucci is joined on the cast list by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo, who play the Spotlight team.

Image copyright Open Road Films
Image caption Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo (centre) play reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Michael Rezendes, with Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll

McCarthy, who is nominated for best director and best adapted screenplay, agrees that to focus on the journalists rather than the abuse itself was an unusual step, but points out the scale of their achievement.

"It's extraordinary that this story was uncovered by a team of four local reporters, who put themselves against the might of one of the world's most powerful institutions," he says.

"And the fact they uncovered the story was an achievement in itself. Even though these events took place 15 years ago, just before 9/11, we forget how much the world has changed. It was, effectively, a pre-digital world, and so much of their research was done meticulously in library basements, in courthouses, in poring over newspaper clippings.

"This is an example of really strong local journalism that went on to have a national and then a global impact. It's important to remember when funding for this kind of investigative reporting has taken a huge hit."

The investigation started in 2001 when a new editor of the Boston Globe, Marty Baron, ordered the Spotlight team to follow up on a small column in the paper about a local priest accused of sexually abusing children and teenagers over the course of 30 years.

The Spotlight editor, Walter Robinson, along with reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, began to research the case.

Over the course of a year, they discovered a systematic establishment cover-up of the paedophile activities of scores of priests.

Their reporting would lead the way for more exposes in more than 200 cities across the world.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Michael Rezendes, left, stands for a photograph with actor Mark Ruffalo, who plays Rezendes in the film at the Boston premiere of the film

While many of the cast and crew, including Mark Ruffalo, have a Catholic background, Tucci believes seeing the film "as an attack, or a condemnation of Catholicism, would be wrong.

"It's actually absolutely the opposite - it's a condemnation of corruption, especially the corruption of basic Christian tenets. It's a condemnation of the abuse of power, and people who abuse the real innocents in society.

"The Catholic Church has so many great things to offer, and these people took advantage of it. I don't just mean the priests, I mean those who covered it up."

The current Pope, Francis, asked in 2014 for "forgiveness" for historic abuse committed by Catholic clergy, and Tucci says he finds him "extraordinary and incredible".

"The things he's said on climate change and poverty - we need our politicians to speak in that way. Ideally, that's what the church is for, to speak for contemporary issues and not to be obsessed with ideology."

Although Spotlight went away empty-handed from the Golden Globes, bookmakers William Hill have it at 4/5 to win a best film Oscar.

It would have a long way to go, however, to match the four Oscars of All The President's Men, the 1976 movie of how The Washington Post uncovered the Watergate scandal, and now a benchmark for films about fearless journalism.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Boston Globe journalists, upon whom the movie is based, Ben Bradlee Jr, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Walter "Robby" Robinson attended a special screening of Spotlight in Los Angeles

Birdman star Michael Keaton, however, points out that in 2016, "there are a lot less investigative journalists around for various reasons, and this film is a shining example to show how society benefits from a free and functioning press - of journalists doing it for their ideals."

"We know that lots of newspapers are in dire straits," continues McCarthy. "Many dailies have closed, and even the Boston Globe is half the size it once was.

"In my opinion, it was only strong local reporters who could have cracked this story, and it just reinforces how much journalism on a local level is needed.

"It's disconcerting that news has transitioned from being valuable in its own right into news for entertainment."

Mark Ruffalo, nominated for best supporting actor for his part as reporter Michael Rezendes, believes reporting of the Iraq war in 2003 "was the ultimate failure of the international press - what wasn't reported. To me, that was the end of an era for journalism. However, I do believe it's correcting itself now.

"I hear the lament of investigative reporters that they don't have the capital or the resources to do research anything for more than a month. But at the same time, there are now websites such as Truth Out and Vice, they have shifted into digital deep investigative reporting, which is really healthy."

"Hopefully people who want to be journalists will watch Spotlight, take those old standards and move them along to new media," says Keaton. "We don't know where the industry is going, but we do know that every institution needs to be held to account."

Spotlight is released in the UK on 29 January.

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