‘Spotlight’ review

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. So I thought I’d write a review of it, my first film review in years (I used to write them all the time).

If you’re not familiar with the premise, it focuses on the Spotlight investigative reporting unit at The Boston Globe (reporters Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer and their editor, Walter V. Robinson) and its investigation of allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped uncover wider abuse on a global scale.

Journalists of my generation arguably don’t (didn’t!) have a “newspaper film” for our era. There’s “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” both far removed (socially, culturally and technologically) from our current time. Even “Spotlight,” taking place 13-14 years ago in 2001-02, feels slightly dated, a definite product of its time (which is an observation, not a quality judgment; it could be called a period piece).

The organic growth of the investigation, done at the urging of new editor Marty Baron (who’s now leading The Washington Post), is something amazing to watch. It’s a testament to the menial work involved in deep digging; in one scene, the team works through a spreadsheet line by line, collecting what they need. Old newspaper clips are dug out of the archives, doors are knocked on, sources are met in coffee shops and parks and offices, and legal documents are sifted through. When the final story lands on doorsteps, you know where it came from.

And the story is what’s essential here. The focus is always on the story. We get to know the reporters and editors (an assortment of outsiders with a fresh perspective, lapsed Catholic Boston-breds and veterans who maybe should have pursued this story sooner). We appreciate their motivations and feel for them as they hit roadblocks and try to wade through paperwork and finesse sources. But they are not the focus; it is the story. And the actors (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe reporters/editors) successfully convey the motivations of the staff without making it all about them.

Finally, everything feels earned. When there is an outburst, it springs from genuine, earned frustration, not self-righteous grandstanding. The obstacles to the story are not death threats or bricks through windows, but bureaucratic red tape and slammed doors. It feels raw and earthy. The basement Spotlight newsroom feels lived in, the journalists dress like they don’t care how they look (and why would they?) and the city of Boston feels organic and alive. The abuse that is the focus of the investigation is like a horde of cockroaches that scatters when you turn on the light or lift up the rug. There is no sudden horrific epiphany or silver bullet, just confirmations of what these people had already figured out for themselves but needed proof of to include in the report.

This is the kind of film that necessitates discussion and reflection. We may not see another film about journalism this good for a long, long time.

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The day the Web went dark

Visit Google lately? Or Wikipedia? Or WordPress?

On Wednesday, each of these sites (and others, including BoingBoingTwitpic and Reddit) will “go dark” in protest of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA). Both of these bills have seemingly innocuous names (piracy is bad), but a measured dissection shows how damaging they would be to the Web and to free expression.

Chris Heald wrote an excellent criticism of SOPA on Mashable, providing clear positions and using layman’s terms to explain just what about SOPA is so troubling. Heald makes his opinion clear: “If a programmer on my team wrote code as convoluted as this bill, I would fire him on the spot.”

Here are some of the bill’s provisions:

1. The attorney general could take action against any site found to “facilitate” copyright infringement. As Heald points out, the site need not be solely for content theft. Text and photos on otherwise law-abiding sites could be targeted, as could links. This would include sites like Facebook, Gmail, Google, YouTube, Tumblr and God only knows how many others. Want to upload a video of yourself singing, say, “Rolling in the Deep”? Heald points out that, at $1 a pop (what the song sells for as a legal download), if your video gets 2,500 views, you’ll have committed a felony. This is without any monetary gain on your part, by the way. (Obligatory joke about, “Most YouTube performances are terrible, but this is ridiculous!”)

2. Search engines would have to scrub the offending sites from their listings, and advertising services would have to cut ties.

3. Your ISP would have to censor your access to foreign sites that the U.S. government could not take down on its own. One such site? Wikileaks.

The overall gist? This bill would effectively cripple Web development by putting it under de facto government control, gut online advertising potential, give the government (or more precisely, the corporations buying off the government) a frightening amount of censorship authority and criminalize virtually … everything, nearly anything you or I do in day-to-day Web use, no matter how innocent. The big push for the legislation comes from the RIAA and the MPAA in an effort to curb music and film piracy, respectively. What it actually does is aim a bazooka at an anthill, targeting content pirates and innocent-but-unlucky Web users alike.

Being a journalist, I’m extremely wary of anyone who would try to deny me or anyone else access to information. It demonstrates a troubling willingness to assert unilateral control over citizens’ Web-usage habits and I believe that it discourages Web innovation, because the fear of reprisal would prevent start-ups from attempting to get off the ground. Look at how many great American tech companies would be affected by this legislation. It’s enough to scare off anyone else.

Thankfully, it looks like SOPA may not be long for this world. However, I think it’s important for people to still understand what it is and how critical it is that it or something like it never be allowed to pass. This is the information age, and information is power. Don’t give it up so easily.

The full text of the bill can be found here