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Five Movies About Investigative Journalism

Not so long ago, journalism was a universally respected profession. We collectively agreed that journalists reported things called “facts,” and that these facts were true, even if they were at odds with our beliefs and opinions. It was uncomfortable sometimes, when we learned that a politician or public figure we admired had done something unseemly (or even despicable). We might have been forced to reevaluate why we thought a certain way, and perhaps even considered the possibility that we had been wrong in our beliefs. That took effort, and sometimes it was difficult.

It seems like there are a lot of people who aren’t willing to do that anymore. Many of us have become lazy, and we confuse stubbornness with strength. Rather than admit we made a bad judgement, or put someone or something on a pedestal who didn’t deserve to be there, we simply reject the new information as biased or inaccurate. We demonize any messenger who brings us bad news or who makes clear that we’re fighting a losing battle. And what’s worse (and even more lazy), we demonize the messenger in hyperbolic terms. We’ve come to a point where anyone who says anything we don’t agree with is THE WORST PERSON EVER, deserving of no respect whatsoever!

The news media has been a frequent target of late, but I say that the biggest problem in today’s news reporting is one we created ourselves. We started wanting to be entertained and comforted, rather than be informed, by the news. So we sought out voices who confirmed what we already believed, regardless of their veracity or truthfulness. And our short attention spans mean that newspapers — perhaps the best source for long-term investigative journalism — have had less influence than ever before.

We’ve even gotten to the point where “alternative facts” are actually a thing.

Fortunately, we still have movies to remind us (and hopefully not let us stray too far from) the positive impacts that investigative news professionals can have.

Spotlight (2015) 

Sometimes a scandal is so big, has gone on for so long, and involves so many trusted pillars of the community, that it’s hard to believe. In Spotlight, reporters at the Boston Globe work to uncover the systemic child sex crimes that occurred for decades in the Catholic church. They face not only resistance and stonewalling from the perpetrators themselves, but from others in the community who choose to deny or ignore the problems out of fear of upsetting the status quo. The investigative journalists also have to overcome their own doubts and disbelief; could something this horrible and this widespread really have occurred?

Spotlight (rightly, I think) took home Oscars for Best Picture and Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay). The deep and talented cast (including Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, John Slattery, Lief Schreiber and Stanley Tucci) balance each other out, and make it easy for us to follow them down the rabbit hole of these most despicable crimes.

Even the style in which much of Spotlight is shot clears away virtually anything that would distract from the story. The dramatic tension builds slowly and organically. The shots dolly in and out slowly, and the narrative never stops its patient and deliberate crescendo. There’s a “research montage” about halfway through the film that’s exact opposite of 1980’s training montages (a la Rocky IV) — no music, no quick cuts; just people doing their jobs.

Is the power of journalism gone? If so, is it because of what “news” now is, or because of what we want “news” to be? I hope not.

All the President’s Men (1976) 

The Watergate break-in and cover-up is arguably the biggest news story ever broken by investigative journalists, and All the President’s Men presents the story in full-on 1970’s paranoia-thriller glory. We know the story, we know the outcome, but we’re still glued to the screen watching it all unfold. Admittedly, a little bit of that may be due to the sexy-fication of the two reporters:

But the real draw is watching two men handle work their way through and develop an earth-shattering story, despite the power of the people who want to discredit or silence them, and despite the possible threats to their own safety. All the President’s Men shows us the apex of investigative journalism.

If a pair of reporters tomorrow revealed presidential misdeeds of a similar or larger scope, would we as a nation react with the same level of outrage? Will we ever see another president resign for the good of the nation? I suspect we’re too polarized now. So many of us have chosen sides, and we’re generally unwilling to say anything bad about our own team out of fear that it could benefit the opposition. Unfortunately, that means our team members can get away with virtually anything, and loyalty is valued more than honesty or fairness.

The Paper (1994) 

How hard is it to work at a newspaper? No, not in terms of the job itself. Rather, what kind of personal toll does such a career take? In The Paper, the hard-hitting investigative journalism doesn’t appear to be particularly difficult, at least in comparison to the challenges the reporters and editors face in keeping their collective shit together. Each of the leading characters has made major life sacrifices for the sake of the job, and when they get their hands on a significant scoop they may end up losing even more.

Unfortunately, the story felt so artificially kinetic (like a caffeine or sugar high) and fragmented that I didn’t much care. The storyline involving the news story (the wrongful arrest of two teens for a brutal double murder) didn’t get the proper amount of focus or attention. And the most intriguing theme — what’s a newspaper’s obligation to run stories that are true? If a story is right today, but you’re pretty sure it’ll be wrong tomorrow, what do you do? — barely shows itself, and only as the story is nearing its conclusion. Seeing this conflict expanded upon would have made for a much more interesting story.

The cast of The Paper has earned 4 academy awards, plus another 17 Oscar nominations. So it’s more than a bit surprising that it felt so flat to me.

Shock Corridor (1963) 

The pursuit of a Pulitzer Prize drives one investigative journalist to have himself committed to a mental hospital in the hopes of solving a murder. He’s identified three patients who were witnesses to the crime, and wants to Johnny Barrett gets inside by feigning an incestuous infatuation with his “sister” (played by his reluctant girlfriend).

Each of the witnesses has their own backstory, and each backstory embodies a major societal ill; simply living in the world can drive a person crazy. Johnny works hard to get closer to getting his story, but the stress of pretending to be insane (and living in an insane world) eventually takes its toll.

The investigative process isn’t particularly well fleshed out, it’s just a reason for us to be inside the mental hospital and observe. Johnny simply engages each witness in turn until they have a moment of clarity and sanity. Still, apart from a few scenes that are now laughable (including Johnny stumbling into the “nympho ward” of the hospital), most of the film still retains enough power to make us uncomfortable.

Sometimes the price of getting the story is just too high.

The Insider (1999) 

Investigating the Watergate break-in certainly put Woodward and Bernstein at risk, but consider the perils of going up against Big Tobacco. Men with questionable integrity will fight hard to protect their political power, but men looking to protect their wallets are going to fight even harder. The Insider doesn’t always play as dramatically as Spotlight or All The President’s Men, but to me it’s the most powerful and effective of the three movies because it shows just how far the powers that be will go to destroy Jeffrey Wigand (a former employee of the Brown & Williamson tobacco company who knows about the company’s efforts to make their cigarettes more addictive).

And perhaps most depressingly, even the media outlet here (CBS’ 60 Minutes) drops the ball by letting business and dollars trump the truth. More than any other film on this list, The Insider is a story of courage on the part of whistleblowers and news sources who know right from wrong and are willing to sacrifice themselves to make sure that right wins out.

About Me

In 1976 I went to see The Sting with my father and sister.

Unfortunately, we arrived at the theater an hour after the show started. We went in anyway, and watched the last half of the movie. After the movie was over we stayed until the next showing, so I eventually got to watch the first half of the film (already knowing how it was going to end).

I was struck by the magic of the movies, and how we could be tricked by the actors (and by our own assumptions of what's happening on the screen), and how this was a wonderful thing.