Been visiting @JPTNewport once a year to see a movie starring Grumpy Michael Keaton. I hear they sometimes show other movies? Should look.— Jason McIntosh (@JmacDotOrg) December 14, 2015
Much of the reason I enjoyed Spotlight maps to why I enjoy the TV show Top Chef: at center, both portray experts overcoming unusually difficult or complex obstacles through calm, honest teamwork, in the manner of competent and rational adults. I just love watching someone very good at a certain craft pursue it with skill and passion, whether real or, as in Spotlight’s case, fictionalized. (Or even science-fictionalized, per The Martian.) And when I think on why I feel so hungry to watch stories highlighting such displays of domain-specific skill, I first think of how it contrasts with so much of the audiovisual entertainment I otherwise watch.
Lost, which I did enjoy watching to a certain extent, may have broken my ability to appreciate much of modern television drama, even as it deeply influenced so many TV shows that would follow. After it ended, the more I thought back on Lost, the less I liked it. For all its cleverness, it never made a serious attempt to break out of the venerable and ubiquitous meta-setting for televised drama that I sometimes call “the Type-A World”, and sometimes just “the Asshole World”. This world posits a civilization that resembles our own, except that every person is one hundred percent selfish, acting as if in constant competition with every other person, and apparently concerned only with short-term gain. In this world, even “good” characters might, after discovering something strange, inexplicably lie about it like children fearing punishment rather than openly and honestly sharing what they know, as any rational grown-up in their situation would.
(This world does not posit how a planetful of people essentially incapable of cooperation could have ever built a modern and complex civilization in the first place.)
I’ve known about the Type-A World for as long as I’ve been watching TV, of course. When I was a kid I summarized it as any show where a character might reasonably say “I have no time for your riddles, old man.” More recently I’ve instead suggested it as any show where someone might sneer “Oh, so nice of you to join us” and not seem utterly bizarre. In any case, the characters act like channels for the scriptwiters’ own impatience, each a shallow simulacrum that wants exactly one thing, aware that any moment they spend on-screen not explicitly chasing that one thing represents misspent studio budget, and therefore bad television.
The reporters in Spotlight do not act this way. These characters do want a thing, but that thing is more transcendental than the basic things that characters in low-fi TV dramas want: they want to do their jobs as well as they can. The story of Spotlight catches these characters at a time when, for a year or so, their jobs became unusually difficult, and politically fraught in a novel way. The film chronicles how they came together as a team of professional, intelligent, emotionally mature grown-ups in order to rise to the challenge. They do happen to profoundly change the political face of a prominent global institution in the process, which certainly helps make the story interesting, but these characters don’t come with superhero-style monologues about “saving their city” or bringing down a den of villains. They encounter, together, a profound darkness — in the sense of unwarranted secrecy, at least as much as actual evil — and so bend themselves totally to the task of flooding it with light, because that’s what competent investigative reporters in the real world do.
If they were instead reporters residing in the Marvel Universe or House of Cards or whatnot, they’d immediately start acting like confused 12-year-olds, lying to their sources and their families and each other about what they learned. Other confused 12-year-oldalikes in their world would start trying to murder them, the default behavior of any asshole-planet antagonist, saddled as they are with all the range of action available to a typical big-budget video game character. Friends, I tell you that I tensed up every time Spotlight showed one of the reporters, I don’t know, jogging up a flight of stairs or something, because I expected them to throw open the door at the top and then get shot in the face by an off-screen assailant, because drama. What continual, pleasurable relief I would feel every time I reminded myself that this wouldn’t happen here.
I did wince at a scene where Mark Ruffalo’s character told a white lie to a potential source he needed to curry, falsely implying that the receptionist gave permission for him to barge into the guy’s office. But that’s the most “television” that any character in the movie acted. Arguably, his lie helped set the stage for my favorite single bit about the movie: how it lets us believe that John Slattery’s character (a version of the real-life Ben Bradlee) had intentionally buried the story about the abusive priests every time it had arisen in the past, and was now evading his colleagues’ questions about it. It emerges in the end that his ignorance about the abuse, which he never hid, was genuine — the whole editorial staff had unconsciously allowed themselves to stay in the dark about the global scandal, too involved in the city’s systems themselves to see it, unwittingly waiting for an outsider to arrive and point to the pattern.
I remember when I watched All the President’s Men for the first time as an adult — a film very much in the vein of this one, and another favorite of mine — and felt amazed how, working towards the downfall of a sitting American president, the protagonists never failed to open every conversation identifying themselves as Washington Post reporters, and they still got what they wanted. The film strongly suggests that their unflinching transparency played as strong a role as their intelligence and doggedness in finding success.
I do not exaggerate to say that All the President’s Men changed my own relationship to truth-telling and personal representation. It happened that I launched my current career as a freelance software consultant around the time I saw that picture, and I think of ol’ Woodward and Bernstein — or their potrayals by Redford and Hoffman, anyway — every time I have to tell a client something that my inner 12-year-old wants to dissemble over. I very much doubt I’d still be in business for myself if I acted like all these people on television.
Before the film began, as soon as the previews started at the Jane Pickens Theater (starting with The Danish Girl), I felt awash with an almost physical and entirely unexpected sense of relief, like a massage. In just seconds, even those short trailers for unusual films drained away all trace of annoyed distraction at taking my partner’s suggestion to set my work down to take in a picture. I’d let myself forget how healthy movies can be — at least when consumed with variety in mind. Not all the movies I enjoy are of the sort that inspire me to become a better person, but Spotlight reminds me that they exist, and how I really ought to lend them my attention more often.