Movies about scrappy journalists looking out for the people used to be a dime a dozen. Journalists were heroes and fighters for the masses. These days reporters and editors aren’t the fodder they once were for films. But newspaper movies (much like actual newspapers) aren’t quite dead, yet.
Spotlight won Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay at the Academy Awards this year because it is a powerhouse film portrayal of the real-life story that shocked America: the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of sexually abusive priests.
Even though the story has been out and GROWING for the past 15 years, the movie is so good that it builds suspense and horror as you witness editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) lead his team of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe through the politically and legally treacherous waters of uncovering the nearly 100 pedophile priests under the protection of the Catholic Church in and around Boston.
Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams co-star as leading reporters on the team of journalists writing for a section of the paper known as “Spotlight.” Each was nominated for supporting-role Oscars for portraying the passion and inner-conflict of chasing such a story. In addition to being reporters, each character was raised Catholic and was very challenged in their own ways while reporting this story. Why Keaton was denied a similar nomination is baffling.
Full disclosure: I am a former journalist and mental health professional who worked with sexually abused children. In fact, I have just published a book called Little Victories that is an exposé about how child abuse permeates our communities well beyond the church scandals. Thus, I might be a bit biased in favor of reporters and those putting a stop to child abuse. But really, isn’t child abuse something we’re all against?
The greatest nugget of Spotlight is showing just how hard it is to get abused kids safe — how most people know it is going on and how most people won’t do a thing to fix the problem. Not the police. Not the courts. And especially not the lawmakers who are far more concerned with limiting government and cutting taxes than standing up for the rights of the voiceless.
Spotlight even gets the mood right where when the reporters’ determination is rewarded with a confirmed and world-changing story. It isn’t about the reporters feeling relief or vindication…everybody is feeling a little sick to their stomachs because the story is true, true for thousands of children.
Spotlight is powerful cinema. It is really just part of a long, proud tradition of great journalism movies. So, if you are looking for some other great films about journalists, here’s a good list to get you started:
All the President’s Men (1976). This is the story about how two Washington Post reporters broke President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford starred as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who ultimately caught Nixon leading a successful conspiracy to break into the Democratic campaign offices, spy on the George McGovern presidential campaign and sabotage it. Nixon won the election in a landslide but became the only president forced out of office after his criminal activities came to light.
Although Birdman brought Michael Keaton’s career back from the brink of oblivion in 2014, Spotlight seems a natural fit for him. He was brilliant as the metro editor in 1994’s news classic The Paper. In it he flies through 24 hours in the life of a New York journalist trying to scoop a big story, battle with his managing editor, motivate his staff, keep 2 innocent kids out of jail and deal with his wife’s pregnancy-induced insanity. It is a great news drama with well-placed touches of comedy.
Good Night and Good Luck(2005) shows how famed broadcaster Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) put a stop to Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s communist witchhunts in the 1950s. Filmed beautifully in black-and-white, it will have you yearning for the days when journalists where hard-hitting honest men and women desperate to uncover the truth and loath to cover the Kardashians.
Network (1976) is best known for the classic line, “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this any more!” For as much play as this line gets, at its core, the film is quite prescient for 1976, as it takes a very cynically accurate look at the TV news industry as it moved from being more of a community service to a business driven by the greed of corporate America.
James Cagney is best known for playing gangsters or song-and-dance men, but he played tons of hard-nosed reporters willing to sacrifice everything to expose corruption and violence. In Each Dawn I Die (1939), he catches a D.A. cooking the books before his run for governor. The D.A. has him framed, but Cagney keeps working the story, even after he is locked up! He uses his news camera to help catch murders and win back his girl in 1933’s The Picture Snatcher. And he helps warn America of the pending war with Japan while serving as a foreign correspondent in Blood on the Sun (1945).
Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) features a reporter played by Gregory Peck going undercover as a Jew to expose anti-Semitism and bigotry in America.
Call Northside 777 (1948) has Jimmy Stewart playing a reporter who digs deep into an old murder case. His life is in jeopardy when it turns out the authorities convicted the wrong man for the crime.
Really, though, there are nearly countless films about journalists and journalism. This post focuses more on reporters covering a major story, but it is easy to break from that type of film: Citizen Kane (1941) is a thinly veiled biography about news mogul William Randolph Hearst; Almost Famous (2000) gets into the experience of covering rock in the 1970s; The classic romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934) uses journalism as a foil to bring Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert together; and Anchorman (2004) is probably one of the best comic send-ups about TV news.
The list is nearly endless. Tell us your favorites, and have fun exploring journalism in film.
Nathaniel Cerf went to journalism school for the express purpose of exposing child abuse, after working for several years in children’s mental health. Confidentiality laws prevent most psychologists from talking on the record, but his novel “Little Victories” exposes the truth without naming names and making kids even more vulnerable to their abusers. You can reach him at Nathaniel.Cerf@aent.com.