There's a sequence in Spotlight, the new movie chronicling the Boston Globe‘s efforts to uncover decades of child abuse by dozens of priests, during which the reporters working on the story wander through the streets of Boston, talking to victims of sexual abuse. The shots are framed in such a way that there's almost always a symbol of the church in the background: a spire, a set of doors, something. The symbolism is quiet, but clear. The Catholic Church looms above the city, an omnipresent force both watching over its flock and keeping an eye out for those who would harm the home of God, those who would lift the veil of secrecy it worked so hard to throw over the scandal uncovered by the Globe‘s "Spotlight" unit.
The investigative reporters—played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'Arcy James—can always feel the pressure of the church even when its influence is indirect. It's the disappointment Sacha (McAdams) fears her Nana will share once she discovers what her granddaughter is working on. It's Robby's (Keaton) friendly round of golf with a lawyer who works with the church that suddenly turns chilly when the subject of abuse comes up. It's the home just down the street from Matt's (James) family that is serving as a halfway house for priests the church knows touch—touch, as in present, as in continues to touch, as in will touch again when let back into circulation—kids. It's the invisible hand every business-side employee at a newspaper fears will turn into a fist: "Fifty-three percent of our readers are Catholic," the publisher tells new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) as they prepare to sue for the release of court-sealed documents.
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Spotlight has been acclaimed by many as the best movie about journalism they've ever seen, and that praise is not wrong. Director Tom McCarthy (who cowrote along with Josh Singer) does an excellent job of dramatizing a fundamentally unsexy topic. Investigative journalism is less dark garages and secret sources, more scouring documents and getting lucky. Shattered Glass is still the best movie about journalists I've ever seen, but Spotlight is definitely the best movie about journalism.
That -ist/-ism split is even more apparent when one compares Spotlight to a film from earlier this year, The End of the Tour. A chronicle of Rolling Stone writer David Lipsky's (Jesse Eisenberg) travels with David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel), The End of the Tour is a movie about writers, not a movie about writing. It's concerned with self-conception and self-regard, and the ever-present writerly worry that someone, somewhere, likes some other writer's writing better than your own.
I didn't hate The End of the Tour as much as Glenn Kenny (who edited the late, great DFW), but I didn't care for it much either: Wallace, the author of Infinite Jest and the best piece of tennis writing ever committed to paper, is reduced to an aphorism-spouting cliche. The End of the Tour is a poor man's Almost Famous, another, better film about a writer filled with self doubt who gets too close to his sources and uses their life experiences to help him better understand his place in the universe.