Superhero Journalists on the Silver Screen
Woodward and Bernstein and Spotlight and Me
Pop culture’s version of the American reporter is suffused with noir: trench coats, cigarettes, hats dangling at rakish angles, pencils scratching across notepads. Journalists don’t resemble Rajiv Chandrasekhar so much as the characters of a Raymond Chandler novel.
On Sunday, a far more realistic depiction of reportage is up for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director (Tom McCarthy). Spotlight is based on the true story of an eponymous team of Boston Globe journalists. Led by editor Walter Robinson, the Spotlight team of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James) won a Pulitzer in 2003 for their investigation of systemic sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests in the greater Boston area. The film itself is graceful, unfussy, and diligent. Its pace is propelled by an adagio piano score (composed by Howard Shore) that supports both the story’s importance and tragedy. Ruffalo is at his career-best as Rezendes, the indefatigable reporter who pursues the plaintiffs’ lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), and crisscrosses Boston to unseal documents that prove the Church’s knowledge of the abuse and its subsequent negligence. Michael Keaton, fresh off Birdman, plays Robinson, an editor who uncovers abuse at his high school—which is across the street from the Globe offices.
Films about journalism are simpler when the project has an axe to grind. Shattered Glass is entertaining, sure, but it’s the story of a disgraced magazine writer who fabricated nearly every word he ever wrote. Films about journalism that are in fact satire fare well: Sweet Smell of Success, Wag the Dog, Network. And far too many thrillers masquerade as accounts of journalistic heroism: The Pelican Brief, True Crime, The Constant Gardener.
The only film with which Spotlight can claim kinship is another exemplary cinematic adaptation of investigative print journalism: All the President’s Men. Its Hollywood pedigree is impressive: Directed by Alan Pakula, adapted by William Goldman from Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s book of the same name, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford (respectively), and Jason Robards as the brash, brilliant Ben Bradlee. The Washington Post reporters unmasked a cross-country conspiracy to undermine and sabotage the Democratic Party: bugging the National Committee, candidates for 1972, Democratic events in various cities. The conspiracy began with just one tip-off: a break-in at the DNC’s Watergate HQ.
Incidentally, the film was nominated for Best Picture and Best Director too, almost exactly 40 years ago.
I make this particular distinction, about journalism on film—Broadcast News and, say, Good Night, and Good Luck already traffic in a medium similar to the one they cover—because print journalism is exponentially more difficult to translate from Page A1 to 16 millimeter. Screenwriters must take whole series of articles and the work it took to publish them, capture the humor and effort, the risks and newsroom battles, and make the public, including those who don’t read the paper, want to buy a ticket. A tall order, even for William Goldman.
I was an impressionable 9th grader when I first saw All the President’s Men, in my high school journalism class. My only inclination about a career was to be a novelist. Our teacher dimmed the lights and wheeled out the TV from the yearbook offices. Right off the top the film uses the typewriter as a weapon: “June 1, 1972” rings out like gunshots. Richard Nixon’s jowly face grins as he strides to the podium, his enjoyment of the House and Senate’s applause evident. Moments before, the reporter covering Marine Helicopter One’s landing commended his timely arrival and waxed rhapsodic about the President’s calm and joyful manner.
What unfolded over the next two hours changed my life. Is that an earnest reaction? Maybe. But investigative reporters in India don’t have long lives. All I’d learned of American history till that moment could be summarized in a one-sheet: Roanoke, various colonists named John, tobacco, Triangular Trade, Columbus, House of Burgesses, King George, Declaration of Independence, Lexington and Concord, Constitution, Louisiana Purchase. Money, men, mandates. That’s it. (I’ll devote another essay to the ills of the Texas public school history curriculum.)
Nixon’s glee is undercut, almost immediately, by a scene drenched in darkness. The credits quietly unfold in the lower left-hand corner of the frame, and the only sound is of a tentative scraping. What ended a presidency, and marred several generations’ perception of the executive branch, began with lockpicking.
Woodward is roused from a Saturday morning slumber by the paper’s metro editor Harry Rosenfeld (Jack Warden, my favorite Twilight Zone regular). In the book Woodward’s reaction is described as the following: “[He]… was always looking for a good Saturday assignment, but this didn’t sound like one.” At the courthouse, he’s surprised to learn that the burglars retained their own counsel but hadn’t made a phone call.
Bernstein eavesdrops on the editors’ discussions of the story back at the newsroom. Still at the courthouse, Woodward stops writing when one James W. McCord, security consultant, says he’d recently retired from the CIA.
Woodward, stunned, says half-aloud to himself, “Holy shit.”
Bradlee famously shot down Pakula’s request to film in the Post newsroom. The next best thing was to recreate the newsroom to a T: the film’s production crew began measuring, photographing, replicating. Desks, bought from the same firm that sold furniture to the Post, were painted to match exactly the newsroom’s color scheme. Even discarded paper trash was spread around the newsroom’s incarnation in a Burbank studio. Pakula utilizes long lenses and neat wide shots to hint at the hidden vastness of CREEP (an apt acronym for the Committee to Reelect the President) espionage: in an effort to pull library check-out cards, the camera looks onto Woodward and Bernstein’s heads, climbing further and further away. They’re just two blips in a system that has no interest in transparency. Woodward and Bernstein treat a list of CREEP employees like a cipher: it’s alphabetical, so they have to track people based on their numerical adjacency to a superior. Bernstein recites the names over in Woodward’s car; his voice drops away as the camera pulls back from the car, up past the Post building, up past the streets of downtown D.C., and over the city itself. The slog continues, even as daylight disappears and the city’s lights go up; Woodstein are now blanketed in the dark, two men trying to dig up something they can’t even define.
Both the film and the book are honest about Woodward and Bernstein’s dislike for each other. The former resented Bernstein’s ability to get his byline on someone else’s story, and the latter considered Woodward “a prima donna who played heavily at office politics.” Bernstein became a copy boy at 16, at the Washington Star, and had been at the Post since 1966. Woodward’s tenure was a mere nine months. He was 29. Bernstein was 28. “They had never worked on a story together.”
The pair’s initial prickly partnership is in stark contrast to the Spotlight team’s interpersonal trust and dedication. When Rezendes is reamed out by Robinson for pushing to publish the story, he knocks on Pfeiffer’s door late at night. Over a drink on her porch she empathizes: “You care about the story, Mike. We all do.” During the team’s interview with a survivor, Robinson tells him that “it’s safe to say we were all raised Catholic.” It’s a piece of information that speaks volumes: the Spotlight team are all lapsed from the faith in which they were raised. But it’s the same faith they always thought they’d return to, and the same faith that’s collapsing in front of them.
Despite the multiple differences in tackling the story, both sets of reporters become immersed in a form of research you don’t hear about anymore. Woodward and Bernstein go to the mattresses with lists of names and phone numbers, without any particular idea about what they might find. White House librarian says yes, she has information about Howard Hunt checking out books on Chappaquiddick; a moment later, she says no, she doesn’t even know a Mr. Hunt. Kenneth Dahlberg knows he shouldn’t tell Woodward about the person he handed a cashier’s check for $25,000 to—Woodward mouths, “Tell me”—but when he says he gave it to Maurice Stans, Nixon’s head of finance, the reporter’s mouth goes slack. Sacha Pfeiffer knocks on just as many doors as Woodstein—scribbling dutifully on page after page—and all three encounter rancor, slammed doors, even threats. She is particularly shocked when a former priest not only openly admits to raping young boys, but says he was raped by priests too. Robinson has his team work backward from parish directories, tracking the reassignment of priests who molested children and teenagers. They are shocked to discover that “sick leave” is an official designation for accused priests. I remember feeling a rush of—admiration? Ambition? Pride? I’m not sure—when Pfeiffer, Carroll, and Rezendes haul the directories to their office, take rulers and scroll down every page of the parish directories, noting sick leave designations. They tally their work separately first, writing each incidence and priest into an Excel spreadsheet. (Even in the early aughts computer usage was the last stage of work, not the first.) After combining their respective totals, the three do a line-by-line matchup, to make sure their count is correct. Together, they find 87 names, or, nearly six percent of all priests. It shocks them, this number. It shocks assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr., and it shocks executive editor Marty Baron.
Woodstein met quite a few terrified people, many of whom broke down, sobbing, begging them to go away. The Spotlight team met with victims who began to cry, out of shame, fear, the pain of the memory itself. What I realized upon my nth re-watch of All the President’s Men and the second screening of Spotlight is that at no point do the reporters give the victims a hug, or tell them “It’s okay” or “It’ll be fine.” Everyone, regardless of existing journalistic skills or experience, refrains from such gestures. Of course it isn’t fine. It isn’t fine that the Attorney General, the highest-ranking law enforcement official in the country, turns out to be a crook. It isn’t fine that Nixon’s administration hired newly minted lawyers to implement “ratfucking”: sabotaging Democratic campaign events, bugging secretaries, leaking medical histories of candidates, writing the Canuck Letter. Bernstein reassures the Bookkeeper (Jane Alexander) without condescension. He takes his time, asking questions slowly, scribbling on matchbooks, napkins, tissue paper. The lengthy scene, one of the film’s best, feels like slowly guiding a deer in the headlights off the road.
Rachel McAdams’s portrayal of Sacha Pfeiffer as temperate and respectful is crucial in the journalist-source relationship. My heart broke when a victim describes to her his confused adolescence: unaware that he was gay; attracted to men; introduced to sex, by force, by his priest in that same mode of vulnerability. He begins to cry in the middle of a park. Pfeiffer doesn’t move away. She holds her pen in the same place, looks at him with a steady gaze, but doesn’t hug him, or pat his shoulder. This doesn’t make her cruel or unfeeling. It makes her a reporter.
Sources in Watergate and the Catholic Church coverup echo certain patterns: a guy leans on another guy to suppress a story, everyone is asked to hold ranks. A horror story is being kept quiet by the Catholic Church, a massive institution with a vise grip over a city. Paranoid and corrupt men use millions of dollars to sabotage what might ostensibly be called democracy (and certainly due process). When Marty Baron, superbly underplayed by Liev Schreiber, first meets Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) of the Boston Archdiocese, the latter issues a polite warning. “I find that the city’s institutions work best when they work with each other” and “You’ll find that Boston is still a small town.” Boston might be a small town, but the scale of the Church’s abuse spreads throughout the city.
Guidance looms large at the Post and the Globe. Robinson led the Spotlight team, but guiding their coverage aboveground (the team’s office was in the basement of the building, past the boiler room) was led by Ben Bradlee, Jr. (the wonderful John Slattery). I jumped for joy in my seat, a little bit, when I realized Bradlee and his son led newsrooms of the highest order. Woodstein were intimidated by their executive editor; in the book they describe his appearance as an “international jewel thief.” Throughout the film Bradlee’s incredulity deepens. When managing editor Howard Simons first mentions Deep Throat, Bradlee explodes outright.
Simons smiles. “That’s Woodward’s garage freak, his source in the executive.”
“Garage freak—Jesus, what kind of a crazy fucking story is this?”
It’s what Bradlee says next that, in hindsight, is a clue to the entire conspiracy: “Look, McGovern’s dropped to nothing, Nixon’s guaranteed the renomination.” During an editors’ meeting a few minutes earlier, the foreign editor expresses skepticism to Bradlee about the story. “McGovern is self-destructing, just like Humphrey, Muskie, the bunch of them.” The ease with which Nixon secured the nomination and soared in the polls, the rapid decline and incineration of the Democrats running a reliable opposition campaign: this was the entire plan.
What I felt for All the President’s Men at 14 was love. I wanted to do that, I thought, my finger pointed at the screen. I wanted to convince sources to tell me the truth, to keep digging till the corruption came to light, till my name was on the front page of the Times. (Even then I had a keen New York City-reportage bias.) And every day after I saw that film, I immersed myself, in full nerd-mode, in reading about Watergate, Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Dean, Kalmbach, Segretti, Mitchell, Magruder, Porter, Liddy, Colson, the lot of them. I memorized the AP Stylebook. I worked for the alternative newsweekly in Fort Worth. I went to journalism camp at Mizzou; shortly thereafter I applied to their undergrad program, ‘print’ underlined heavily, and was accepted. I was accepted by NYU’s journalism program; off I went to Washington Square. Then that ambition died. A casualty, I think, of realizing that Woodstein’s job doesn’t exist anymore. Everyone blogs, everyone tweets. (Later I’d tweet too.) There is no standard; there is no investigative process. News is dealt out in 140-character bursts, not series that start on A1. What a celebrity did over the weekend gets more page hits than practically any other metric of the news business: sales, public opinion, calls for investigation. Add to that a generous helping of severe clinical depression, and I didn’t have ambitions in any field whatsoever.
I know now that what I fell in love with at 14 was not necessarily the profession, but the filmmaking. Woodstein won a Pulitzer and Nixon was forced to resign, but the film would be rubbish without Goldman’s faithful adaptation (including a healthy dollop of humor) and the work of cinematographer Gordon Willis. Forget his reputation—Klute, The Godfather films, Annie Hall, Manhattan, many other Woody Allen films—Willis pulls in the viewer with a pitch-black frame. That’s the first scene of the film: credits in the lower-left, soft scraping in the right. There’s literally a story that no one can see. It’s his eye that creates the invisible enormity of what Woodstein are up against, his bright fluorescents that force open eyes in the newsroom, his muted yellows and greys in the homes of the Bookkeeper and Hugh Sloan (Stephen Collins). William Goldman said he wrote the film as a detective story. That may be true, but the hero of that story is its director of photography.
My favorite part of both films is the brief monologue delivered by both executive editors, just as the film ends.
Ben Bradlee: “You guys are probably pretty tired, right? Well, you should be. Go on home, get a nice hot bath. Rest up. 15 minutes. Then get your asses back in gear. Nothing’s riding on this except the, uh, first amendment to the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of the country. Not that any of that matters. But if you guys fuck up again I’m gonna get mad. Goodnight.”
Marty Baron: “All of you have done some very good reporting here. Reporting that I believe is going to have an immediate and considerable impact on our readers. For me, this kind of story is why we do this. If you need to, take a moment for yourselves. You’ve earned it. But on Monday, I need you here fresh and ready to work.”
Someday, hopefully, I’ll feel less guilty about walking away from the goal of being a reporter. In the meantime, I have two sets of potent words that apply to any writer. What I have to say today, tomorrow or next year may have no bearing on the Constitution. But I am grateful that I can appreciate the importance of doing the work. The work I want do is to make television, and the strength of that goal isn’t any weaker because I’m not a reporter. Here’s hoping that the slowly fading art of print journalism at least gets its due on Sunday.