Bart & Fleming: How ‘Spotlight’ And ‘Truth’ Flatter Journalism; Why ‘Black Mass’ Blew It By Ignoring Scribe Storyline

Peter Bart and Mike Fleming Jr. worked together for two decades at Daily Variety. In this occasional column, two old friends get together and grind their axes, mostly on the movie business.

FLEMING: I’m back from the Toronto Film Festival, a messy affair where deals took forever, and two films — the Aretha Franklin documentary Amazing Grace and London Fields — were kicked out because of legal disputes. Perhaps the oddest thing I saw there came at the end of the premiere of the movie Spotlight. The lights came up, and the stage filled with both the cast and the actual Boston Globe reporters who exposed a shameful cover-up by Boston’s Catholic Church hierarchy that paid hush money and shuttled pedophile priests from parish to parish, same as moving a fox to a new hen house. The surprise: the audience didn’t just clap, the crowd stood up for a loooong time to cheer for these journalists, and a movie that evokes the best things about the gold standard of American journo films, All The President’s Men.

BART: Another damn good film at Toronto, Trumbo, delivered a sharply contrasting glimpse at journalist enterprise in the form of Hedda Hopper. That famed gossip columnist of the ‘40s and ‘50s made it her mission to expose “commies,” gays and anyone else she defined as subversive and did everything she could to destroy their careers. As such, she became an important ‘enforcer’ for the Black List.

FLEMING: That is exactly the kind of stories about journalists that we usually see. In this cynical tabloid age, you don’t often see journalists playing the hero. This goes back in history to movies from Orson Welles and Burt Lancaster’s crusaders-turned-power-mad brutes in Citizen Kane and Sweet Smell of Success or Sally Field’s overly ambitious scoop hungry climber in Absence of Malice, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s sociopath cameraman in Nightcrawler, Meryl Streep’s fire-breathing social climber in The Devil Wears Prada, Hayden Christiansen and Jonah Hill’s plagiarists in Shattered Glass and True Story, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s impossible-to-root-for Wikileaks narcissist Julian Assange in The Fifth Estate. Journalists might think highly of themselves, but the view from the public and movie makers is that it isn’t about truth as much as profits and ruthless ambition, and success that comes at the expense of others. Hack Attack, the movie George Clooney is working on about the British tabloid phone tap scandal, will do nothing to dispel that image.

Spotlight is an exception, an absolute gem. The way things are downward spiraling for print journalism, it might be the last great newspaper procedural. I didn’t get to see the other high profile journalism film at Toronto, the Rathergate drama Truth, but I could tell it was also well received by the hero’s welcome Dan Rather got at the premiere and a party held Saturday night by its distributor Sony Pictures Classics. That could give him an opportunity for career reappraisal after he was basically ended as the George W. Bush reelection machine used flawed reporting in that 60 Minutes II piece to paint the president as a victim rather than a privileged draft dodger during Vietnam. At a time when NBC anchor Brian Williams was recently deposed from the NBC Nightly News anchor desk for blatantly exaggerating his exploits and as newspapers and magazines continue to contract, with layoffs at places like the Daily News cutting past fat and into muscle, it was nice to see an honorable calling get some respect on a couple of Toronto movie screens at least.

black mass 2grinch 2BART: The arrogance of journalists often pisses me off, Mike, including my own sometimes. I’m pleased, though, that our brethren have been afforded key roles in several excellent new movies. Further, they could also have saved Black Mass if they had been given more to do in that film. Depp’s movie is “a muddle of half-baked ideas” (New York Times) and “bleak and claustrophobic” (Los Angeles Times) but it also lacks narrative drive. I would argue Black Mass would have been a better movie if viewers had followed the plot through the point of view of the two newsmen who broke the story. By contrast, Spotlight is about the newsmen breaking the story, and Truth is about how an election campaign was nearly sent into a tail spin. Both are far more compelling films.

FLEMING: I couldn’t agree more with you about Black Mass, which seemed primarily crafted for Max Menace Movie Moments for Johnny Depp as the sinister Boston mob boss/FBI informant Whitey Bulger, to the point he evokes The Grinch more than Joe Pesci. There’s zero suspense or explanation of why FBI agent John Connolly would throw away his career, freedom and marriage just to be used by Bulger. It seemed to have something to do with the commonality of their hardscrabble South Boston upbringing, and Connolly seemed to gain financially, but none of this was ever made clear. And this while the notorious Southie gang seemed to consist of Bulger and three reluctant henchmen. There was none of the humor or seductiveness of an outlaw life that Martin Scorsese and Nick Pileggi gave Goodfellas and Casino, the mob movies Black Mass will inevitably be compared with. Warner Bros stepped up to make this film even though its cornerstone filmmaker Ben Affleck planned to direct the same story with his Beantown buddy Matt Damon starring. There were some hahd feelings, to put it in Boston-speak. Black Mass opened decently this weekend, but wow, what a disappointment in finally seeing the story of the mobster who inspired Jack Nicholson’s character in The Departed and James Woods’s character in Ray Donovan. Both of those were more compelling.

TruthBART: Black Mass is all about Johnny Depp. He is superbly homicidal with his crazed stare, his blue contact lenses and his receding hairline wig. Is it a great performance? Yes. Should a movie just be about performance? No. Scott Cooper, himself an actor, should have kept other things in mind beside histrionics if he wanted to hold his audience. There’s also an issue of veracity: If Whitey Bulger were as psychotic as depicted here, could he have settled peacefully for over a decade into a quiet middle class life in Santa Monica? I’ve been in the deli where he went for bagels and I never noticed anybody being strangled between noshes.

Concussion 1FLEMING: You are right about that, as we saw that Goodfellas’ main character Henry Hill and Sammy The Bull Gravano kept getting in trouble in witness protection. What is intriguing is that the same day a big front page New York Times story collected hacked Sony emails alleging that the football film Concussion was softened to appease the National Football League, a story in the Arts section on the same day invited Cooper to explain how he manipulated facts and downplayed violence to make Bulger a more sympathetic villain. NYT’s presentation of hacked documents proved nothing sinister against Concussion, and writer/director and former NYT Magazine foreign correspondent Peter Landesman called the story false and cried foul that NYT preemptively smeared a film nobody but a few sportswriters has seen. The paper didn’t help itself off this slippery slope when it last night issued a note from its Public Editor, who acknowledged the sketchy nature of the article and its prominent placement while still circling the wagons. “The very fact of the story, especially because it appeared on the front page of The New York Times (still a strong statement even in this era of mobile-first journalism), creates the impression that something dastardly took place behind the scenes. I don’t think that was the case. In fact, the internal dialogue and review described in the story, through the emails, isn’t much different from what The Times itself wisely uses in editing big stories that could have legal or other repercussions. Sometimes an article may include balanced reporting and carry a headline that reflects the story’s essence, but nonetheless may give readers a takeaway that is not quite fair. From this story’s prominent placement and overall premise, readers could easily gather something along the lines of this: “Sony caved, fearing the wrath of the N.F.L.”

I haven’t been a fan of using those hacked emails for stories, as we have discussed before. Unlike what happened when Daniel Ellsberg leaked The Pentagon Papers to NYT and the Washington Post, these hacked emails didn’t rise above tawdry embarrassments from private conversations, and painted only a partial picture of what was happening. To me, the NYT Concussion stuff didn’t rise above that, and so therefore was beneath a great newspaper that uncovered this football concussion stuff in the first place, the Pentagon Papers and every day publishes brave stories by journalists who risk their lives to tell the truth, all over the world. Speaking of which: why hasn’t anyone made a big narrative movie about Daniel Ellsberg’s ordeal, and the way NYT and Wash Post and other papers cooperated to get around the Nixon Administration to publish documents of vital public interest that proved the Vietnam War was unwinnable and that the public was being fed lies? Ellsberg, who risked prison, is as heroic a protagonist as tobacco whistle blower Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider (CBS doesn’t come out of that one smelling like roses, either), and the courage of those newsmen evokes Good Night, And Good Luck, another superb journalism film about Edward R. Murrow’s bravery in standing up to bullying Sen Joseph McCarthy and his communist witch hunting.

BART: “News is what someone doesn’t want you to know; the rest is advertising.” I was reminded of that adage today by Margaret Sullivan, The Public Editor of The New York Times, in responding to that Concussion story you cited in your peroration on football, Mike. The adage is helpful in understanding the undercurrent of arrogance displayed by some journalists, who spend their lives finding out things people don’t want them to know. It can be an exasperating pursuit. Back to the Black Mass narrative, told through the dead-pan, matter-of-fact testimony of underlings who turned on him. It could have been told more effectively through the eyes of the newsmen who stayed on his tail for years. Journalistic movies seem to be working this year.

all the president's menFLEMING: I always go to movies about journalists hoping for All The President’s Men, and I imagine guys like us rush to see those movies the way mobsters rush to The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino and Black Mass. But I almost always come away disappointed, even though I could appreciate how Cameron Crowe wove a compelling narrative around his nascent journalism career in Almost Famous, and the way Bennett Miller bared the seduction and tragic bond between Truman Capote and murderer Perry Smith in Capote. Spotlight is certainly at least in the same ballpark as All The President’s Men, because director Tom McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer reveled in the courage and the procedural aspects of dogged reporting that pieced together an atrocity that led all the way up to Boston’s reigning holy man, Cardinal Bernard Law.

There were risks for the Boston Globe same as for the Washington Post when it went out on a limb covering aspects of the Watergate break-in. The Boston Globe readership was predominantly Catholic, and that church hierarchy reigned over the city. The new editor (Liev Schreiber plays Marty Baron) who pressed the Spotlight reporter team to investigate, was Jewish. McCarthy managed to make it all move quickly and feel suspenseful. And as an added bonus, Spotlight even has its own Ben Bradlee! The son of the Washington Post editor played in All the President’s Men by Jason Robards was a key member of the Pulitzer-winning Spotlight team (Bradlee Jr. is played here by Mad Men’s John Slattery). The church’s stubbornness was stupefying. I met Robby Robinson at Open Road’s after party at Toronto’s Soho House. He supervised the Globe’s Spotlight team (Michael Keaton plays him) and said that after serial pedophile priest John Geoghan was finally defrocked by the Pope, the Globe published a letter the church sent to Geoghan, thanking him for his years of loyal service. This for a man who wore the collar 30 years and was accused of raping at least 130 boys, shuffled to the next parish when his rapes caught up to him, before he was finally imprisoned and stomped to death by another inmate serving a life sentence. Spotlight is a true ensemble with great performances by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Keaton, Schreiber, Slattery and others. Nobody has a Master Thespian showcase like Depp got in Black Mass, but this one should nonetheless have a charmed Oscar season.

BART: Back to your comment on Dan Rather, I, too, was pleased to see him taking a bow in Toronto for Truth – an excellent movie. Rather no doubt was delighted to be portrayed by Robert Redford though, on those occasions when I’d spent time with Rather, I found him to be a far more playful and entertaining character in person than Redford. I never had a chance to discuss the specific incident depicted in the movie with Rather, but my intuition tells me that he was fretful about rushing the Sixty Minutes II piece that caused the uproar. The story supposedly proved that George W. Bush, running for re-election, had ducked his military service. It was a delicious counterpunch to the swift-boating stuff being perpetrated by the Republicans. But the documents backing up the story were squishy and the key sources on the story were terrified and unreliable. Would Dan Rather have preferred to wait till after the election to tell the story? Would it still have been relevant then? All this was the stuff of good drama in the movie and it’s a great intellectual tease that lots of questions were unanswered.

FLEMING: All those threads should provide fodder for that movie when it is released. Though he certainly is not objective, Rather said at Toronto that Truth got it as right about journalism as any movie he’d seen. Unlike Brian Williams, Rather had a long career in the trenches, reporting in dangerous war zones like Vietnam before he rose to the anchor desk. It was a shame to see his legacy tarnished, because I suspect he was right. He and producer Mary Mapes got cocky after exposing the torture and abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib during the War on Iraq, and they blew it. But the big thing both Truth and Spotlight have to battle is this: people don’t automatically rush out to see movies about journalists. Recent casualties range from True Story to Kill The Messenger, and the Hollywood adaptation of the superb British miniseries State of Play. Here’s hoping they make an exception for these two Oscar season pictures.

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