Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings opens with a ‘Spotlight’ on journalism

Brent Gardner-Smith
Aspen Journalism

If You Go …

What: ‘Spotlight,’ presented by Aspen Film

Where: Harris Concert Hall

When: Tuesday, Dec. 22, 7:30 p.m.; opening reception, 5:30 p.m.

How much: $20; $15 Aspen Film members; free for AMPAS, BAFTA, guild members

Tickets: Wheeler Opera House box office;

“Spotlight” continues to rack up recognition from movie critics and film societies, including being nominated for a Golden Globe for best drama, best director and best screenplay.

But the movie’s biggest fans may be in what’s left of the nation’s newsrooms, as reporters across the country are praising “Spotlight” — which opens Aspen Film’s Academy Screenings today — as the best journalism film since “All the President’s Men.”

This week, Associated Press film critic Jack Coyle, for example, listed “Spotlight” as No. 4 on a list of his favorite films this year.

“A workmanlike film about the workmanlike enterprise of journalism, Tom McCarthy’s procedural about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church is propelled by its steady accumulation of details and an ensemble so rock solid that it could compete with the Celtics,” Coyle wrote.

In his initial review of “Spotlight” on Nov. 7, Coyle called the movie a “big-screen bolt of inspiration for a beleaguered profession” and said “its greatest strength is its rigorous depiction of investigative journalism and its celebration of an increasingly endangered species of news gathering.”

“People in our business can relate to it,” said Walter “Robby” Robinson, now an editor-at-large at the Globe, who is portrayed in “Spotlight” by actor Michael Keaton.

In 2001, the year the movie is set, Robinson was the Globe’s assistant managing editor of investigations and the leader of a four-person investigative unit known as the “Spotlight Team.”

The movie, directed and co-written by McCarthy, gets a lot right about how a big, complicated story is nailed down in a working newsroom.

Reporters often develop the confidence of sources who would rather not talk, such as Globe reporter Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) does in “Spotlight.”

They persistently struggle to obtain public documents from indifferent and surly officials, as reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) does.

And they find records in dusty archives, as Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) does, and then laboriously go through them, searching for patterns and details.

Meanwhile, editors prod reporters to go after a potentially big story, but then demand clear proof and documentation of the facts, while also keeping the larger point of the story at the fore, as Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) does. (Baron is now editor of the Washington Post).

And yet, as it becomes clear in “Spotlight,” a newsroom also can miss the bigger story.

Just as the Spotlight Team is about to go with their big story, they realize the Globe had run a single story in 1993 that listed 20 sexually abusive priests, but didn’t stay on it and reveal a bigger, more evil, truth.

In the film, the lack of follow-up over eight years is laid at the feet of Robinson, who was metro editor in 1993.

“I think Michael Keaton is actually playing two characters,” Robinson said of the scene. “He’s playing me and he’s also playing a generation of Globe editors who maybe were too deferential to the church. There’s some truth to that.”

Robinson also points out, as most any competitive newspaperman would, that the Boston Herald also ran the 1993 story and didn’t follow up, either.

“All of us are fallible. Only the pope is infallible, right?” said Robinson, a Boston native and a lapsed Catholic. “And I have my doubts about him.”

In “Spotlight,” Robinson is portrayed as a stand-up Boston guy, which his resume suggests is the case.

He went to Boston College High School and Northeastern University. Then he went to Vietnam in 1970 and 1971 as an intelligence officer with the First Calvary Division (Airmobile), as seen in “Apocalypse Now.”

At the Globe for over three decades he’s worked as the city editor, the assistant managing editor for local news, White House correspondent, roving national and foreign correspondent and leader of the Spotlight Team for seven years, until 2006.

And yet, even Robinson benefited from the quiet resolve of newly arrived editor Baron, who told the Spotlight Team to look at the Catholic church in a systemic way.

As Globe reporter Pfeiffer noted, during an interview for ProPublica’s podcast, the paper’s effort in 2001 was different than it had been before.

“We weren’t just writing about priests who abuse children, we were writing about church officials who cover up priests who abuse children,” Pfeiffer said. “We were looking at the system, and that was a distinction between our reporting and previous reporting.”

Robinson, who left the Globe in 2007 to teach investigative journalism at Northeastern before recently returning to the paper, said the “you missed the story” scene is a cautionary tale about the way journalists, and citizens, often treat local iconic institutions.

“It’s a lesson for everybody, and not just journalists,” Robinson said. “Our level of vigilance about things that go on in our society generally is not nearly as good as it should be.”

The Spotlight Team at the Globe, which still has about 300 people in its newsroom, is the oldest continuing investigative team at any newspaper in the country, Robinson said, dating back to 1970. And today it’s a six-person team, up from four members.

Another notable name in “Spotlight” is Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). He’s the son of the late Ben Bradlee, who was memorably played by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men,” in which two persistent beat reporters gradually tell the nation about Watergate.

The younger Bradlee was the assistant managing editor for projects and investigations, or the “projects editor,” at the Globe in 2001. In that role, he oversaw the whole Spotlight Team, including Robinson.

During the podcast interview at ProPublica, Bradlee was asked about the difference in investigative reporting in 2001, at the dawn of the Internet era and today.

“The new technology is fantastic and it makes our job easier in many ways and it presents a lot of possibilities,” Bradlee said. “But I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that sometimes there is reporting that requires really old-fashioned techniques, like knocking on people’s doors, and getting that door slammed in your face, or sweet-talking someone into talking to you.”

Both he and Robinson wish for “Spotlight” to spur a revival in investigative reporting.

“I think we all hope that one of the effects of the movie will be to have editors around the country reassess the importance of investigative reporting, because it really can make a difference in our democracy,” Bradlee told ProPublica. “And yet, in the Internet era, newspapers are obviously struggling and have had to lay off staff. Editors are facing the realities of trying to find enough bodies to merely put out the paper, never mind what is perceived as the luxury of investigative reporting.”

Brent Gardner-Smith is editor and executive director of Aspen Journalism, a local nonprofit investigative journalism organization that frequently collaborates with The Aspen Times.