Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Spotlight (2015)

A new film, Spotlight, directed by Thomas McCarthy, starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, reminds us that politics and news coverage deserve to be taken seriously. How we consume politics and news media feels like entertainment. Like many people, I begin my morning with a cup of coffee and a side of ESPN and the NYTimes for breakfast. However it is important not to forget that politics and journalism are meant to serve a greater purpose than as a temporary distraction from a Sunday hangover.

My laptop computer feels like a constant source of distraction. I’m a click away from an hour of zoning out. My consumption of the news feels like just another piece of that pie. Similarly, watching one of the many presidential debates after work on youtube seamlessly replaces a Netflix or HBO show. Perhaps it's technology that has changed our perception of politics and news as a form of entertainment. But the way politics and news is presented only reinforces that trend.

Donald Trump is the epitome of politics as entertainment.

This is why the Republican debates get great ratings and the Democratic debates are quickly forgotten. One is vaguely serious, the other, well, is less so. Even I have to admit the double feature, undercard/main event Republican debates are an entertaining spectacle. But we must remember that these are real people on the stage. And unfortunately one of them is actually going to hold the most import executive position in the free world. Their decisions as president will matter, affecting the lives of millions of actual living, breathing people. Which is why it can be frustrating that televised debates are treated as theater, and candidates are consistently let off the hook during their time on stage. (See Ted Cruz’s take on the Department of Commerce in the last debate with no follow up by the moderators.) Every candidate's comments in the debates are thoroughly scrutinized post-mortem, but the next time you see them on stage, everything they’ve said in the past will be forgotten. Each new debate is judged more as a performance of body language and eloquence than the last. (See Jeb Bush.) These debates should be treated more seriously, and the fact that the likes of Donald Trump, Ben Carson, and Carly Fiorina are even on the stage should be felt by everyone as an embarrassment.

Although the NYTimes is the fuel that jump starts my brain in the morning, it is usually preceded by an uncontrollable peak at ESPN. Sports journalism for the most part is entertainment. But when teenage kids are dying on the field, and former NFL players are taking their own lives due to repeated head trauma, sports journalism ceases to be entertainment and becomes something more important. You may read the analysis of last Sunday’s games, but boy would you never let your son step on the field.   

It can sometimes be more comforting to think of politics or more broadly, the news, as entertainment, but like the film Spotlight, both often touch people on a much deeper level. The film Spotlight, and the pulitzer prize winning series by the Boston Globe which inspired the movie, remind us not to blindly trust those hiding behind the institution of religion. You wouldn’t let your child be taken for ice cream by a stranger, why trust members of the local clergy? The steep decline in participation among Boston’s Catholic community after the Spotlight reports, prove their purpose to be more than entertainment.

A friend of mine griped about Spotlight, that Mark Ruffolo and Michael Keaten play the characters as taking themselves too seriously. It is certainly true that the film has not a moment of levity. But why shouldn’t they play journalists as a serious occupation? If uncovering the systematic abuse of children isn’t to be taken seriously, then I don’t know what is. The bigger question may be, is the movie about the people or the story? Is it about the style, the music, the performances, or is it about the importance of what the news team revealed to the public?

The only personality trait the characters have in the film is integrity. They’re not fun, they’re not humorous. They’re nerdy and have weird ticks. They enjoy sifting through records, with only a ruler as their bookmark, drinking Harpoons, smoking and talking about their next lead, leaving any semblance of a well rounded life behind. We should all thank god for them. Unfortunately in today's media landscape, I’m not sure they’d have a job to sustain their obsessive dedication. Modern journalism seems to be more about creating a personal brand then letting the work speak for itself. Yet when the story becomes serious, the journalist becomes anonymous and the brand is forgotten. Spotlight is a film for them, and can be both enjoyed and appreciated.

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