Along with many other things, ‘Spotlight’ is about the joy of figuring stuff out

I know I’m late to the party on this one, but hey, I live in China. I finally watched Spotlight this weekend, mere hours before it won Best Picture, and boy howdy is it fantastic. All the things the reviews say are true: An unbelievable cast, full of stars but without showboating. A hugely emotional and compelling subject. A timeless portrayal of how a society tries, laboriously, to correct itself.

But what really grabbed me about the film was that so much of it is about research, about finding things out. Usually research in films is reduced to eureka moments or the mysterious workings of ineffable genius. In Spotlight, we see exactly how the reporters figured it out, step by step. There is brilliant, gripping drama in the reporters getting access to the right public records, and in learning where to find and how to use a crucial data source (an early use of data journalism in fact plays a big role in the story). It is visually low key–no confrontations, chases, explosions. But few movies have so successfully dramatized this process–at the end, you share the reporters’ satisfaction in having uncovered the pattern.

This aspect of the film seems to have also resonated with a lot of journalists. Here’s Ty Burr of the Globe:

Actually, one of the reasons that “Spotlight” is so deeply, absurdly satisfying to this newspaper writer — and to most of those I’ve spoken with, at the Globe and elsewhere — is that Tom McCarthy’s movie doesn’t turn its journalists into heroes. It just lets them do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself. …

If you like your true-crime dramas torqued up to high RPMs, you’re in for a letdown. Most of the movie is people talking, in chairs, in meetings, on the phone. The film’s action alternates between combing through dusty files and harrowing interviews with abuse victims who’ve given up on being heard.

Sacha Pfeiffer, one of the reporters portrayed in the film, recounts in a piece for Variety how skeptical she was about the project, and how completely she was won over:

I was highly wary. Never mind that the grim topic would likely have little appeal to mainstream audiences. Never mind that our jobs are hardly cinematic — we make phone calls, review documents, collect data — and were unlikely to be compelling on screen. …

In spring 2015, they showed us the final product. Once we absorbed the shock of how uncannily the actors had captured our speech and mannerisms, we were struck by what a remarkably authentic portrayal of our jobs was depicted on screen. The movie captures — somehow cinematically — the often tedious, painstaking work that reporting entails, while conveying the critical importance of investigative reporting.

There’s lots of reasons to watch and enjoy Spotlight, but it should be a particular pleasure for anyone who has ever done a research project.

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