Ink-Stained Wretches

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
As I finish my book about the progressive rock movement — or, more to the point, as I procrastinate by spending 20 minutes writing something else — two nagging demons keep jumping on my shoulder. One says that I need to do a bit more work to get the story right. (That’s for the second draft, asshole.) One whispers the possibility that someone will cover the same subject, and drop it when my book drops, and make me wilt in the shadow.

So: I do not envy James Vanderbilt. Under normal circumstances, in which there are no movies about journalism in theaters, he would have just made a frustratingly bad one. The cruel god of timing cursed him to release that bad movie just weeks before “Spotlight,” probably the best movie of 2015, and one of the best-ever about journalism.

Talking to another friend (a journalist) who sat through both, we found ourselves wondering why Truth‘s story of hubris and failure was so much less compelling than Spotlight‘s story of success. It’s more than the clunky writing or Truth‘s seemingly endless use of slo-mo for effect. It’s that Spotlight is just so much smarter, and finds the darkness, the lack of real satisfaction, even in what seems like success.

It’s a smart movie, is what I’m saying. Truth is most decidedly not. It adapts the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who we would remember as the scapegoat of the botched story on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, if not for the fact that Dan Rather threw his scalp on top of hers. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, Robert Redford plays Rather, and both seem to be stretching the thin material into Oscar-shapes. It does not work, because they are trapped in the kind of movie that introduces a heroic veteran with a slow-mo shot of him saluting at a rainy military funeral; the kind of movie where a character warns that “you’ll know it’s bad when they ask to see our source,” then later has a villainous executive ask to see the source, and the same character turn and wryly tell his companion “now it’s bad.”

These are decisions that assume a very stupid audience. Strange, because… who did Vanderbilt think his audience was? The “Rathergate” disaster was compelling enough to inspire a similar story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the only people who want to revisit it are journalists and partisans who know the basics of the story. They — okay, we — are not permitted to watch a straightforward drama about how ego and speed and outright fraud can throw lives off course. No, no, instead we get Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately is the character I keep citing as example of the cinema sins here) telling a colleague that Mapes wanted to break this story in 2000, but her mother fell ill, and you know, “537 votes in Florida.”

We feel whipsawed between two equally stupid theories. One: The story of George W. Bush skipping out on TANG service was big enough to change the election. Two: The story was true, and repressed by partisans. Both are highly dubious. Add to this a cringe-inducing scene where a reporter on the story, played by Topher Grace, is being escorted out of the CBS News building and rants about how corporations are trying to suppress any news that threatens their power. It’s the sort of thing the whole narrative is implying, and then a character actually vocalizes it, and we shudder at the stupidity.

There is nothing like that in Spotlight. Actually, the only thin criticism it’s received has focused on the lack of character-building. I found that criticism totally misguided. McCarthy’s script perfectly captures how journalists talk, and more specifically how these journalists talk. (I only know one of them, Marty Baron, who hired me at the Washington Post, and anyone who wishes Liev Schreiber’s Baron was more animated or explosive is wishing he got the role wrong.)

Lots of people have heaped praise on the plotting and momentum of this movie. I think the characterization has been underrated. We do not get or need expository scenes of how months of work on the Catholic Church abuse scandal is affecting Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We get a scene of her struggling with a dishwasher, and a telling look from her husband when another reporter (Mark Ruffalo) shows up late at night and asks for her. We get that reporter, Mike Rezendes, living in a hovel that he says he can’t really move out of what with the story consuming his time. We get that fact when the Boston Globe’s assistant managing editor (John Slattery) shows up with leftovers, because he knows Rezendes doesn’t have time to cook.

I loved everything about this movie, but what stuck with me was the lack of finality. After Rezendes delivers a copy of the paper with the first (of 600+) Catholic Church expose pieces on the front, he walks past two children who have an appointment with the attorney. They’d been molested two weeks earlier. Two weeks — after we’d seen a lengthy legal fight for documents and a six-week reporting delay due to the 9/11 attacks putting demands on the newsroom. We are told this iteratively, not force-fed. Strangely, it’s Truth that sanctifies the act of journalism and Spotlight that clarifies it.