Saturday, December 19, 2015

Two Investigative Films: Truth and Spotlight

Two movies out this holiday/Oscar season have similar plots but very different outcomes.  Truth tells the story of the 60 minutes II team (with Dan Rather played by Robert Redford) that put together an expose of George W. Bush's military record in the Texas and Alabama air national guards.  Strings were pulled to get him out of fighting in Vietnam.  There were indications that he did not show up for duty when he was required to.

After the piece aired in the summer of 2004 (during the election), questions were raised about the fonts in one of the documents cited in the report.  The claim from the right was that the font could not have appeared in a document typed in the late 60's/early 70's.  An investigation ensued and the end result was Dan Rather, his award winning producer Mary Mapes (played by Cate Blanchett), and the rest of the team being fired from CBS.  Regardless of the authenticity of the document, the veracity of the rest of the original report was never disproved.  Jon Stewart weighed in on it this way at the time.

Like the reactions to the original report, the reviews from the film were lukewarm with a metascore of 67 out of 100.  The review above was one that was not so positive on the film.  One of the complaints was that Redford does not look anything Dan Rather (he didn't look anything like Bob Woodward either in All the President's Men but he still played him and it's now considered a classic). Conservative film critic Michael Medved gave the film 2 stars because he said it was well acted but too biased against the Bush administration. 

The film Spotlight has been much better received so far.  It has received Golden Globe nominations for best drama and best director (but none for acting) and has a metacritic score of 93.  It is the story of how the spotlight team (headed by Michael Keaton and includes Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and another guy) at the Boston Globe is goaded to investigate sexual abuse by priests by the new owner and editor of the paper (LIev Schreiber).  Spoiler alert the team is successful in taking on the Boston Archdiocese getting Cardinal Bernard Law replaced and wins a Pulitzer Prize for their efforts in 2003.  Michael Medved gave the film 3 stars and also called the film one sided against the Catholic Church but said it was understandable due to the crimes that were revealed. 

The Spotlight team did a valuable public service in revealing church abuses but the film does skirt another issue, media consolidation.  Newspapers are having their staffs reduced as more and more of our media is in control of fewer and fewer individuals.  This is happening at many newspapers as well as broadcast outlets like CBS.  This makes it harder for news media outlets to challenge the powers that be with fewer reporters to do the investigating.

Both films show that with the right backing it is possible for investigative reporters to expose the crimes of the powers that be.  The outside media owners backed the spotlight team and Woodward and Bernstein and they were successful.  In the case of Dan Rather and the film Truth, Viacom, the parent company of CBS, sided with the critics and said that if that one document in the report may or may not be real then the whole report must be false.  The program 60 Minutes II ended soon thereafter.

There is a third film coming out called Concussion starring Will Smith as a neuropathologist who discovers a brain disease in football players called chronic traumatic encephalopathy or CTE.  He encounters resistance from the NFL on his findings but they eventually relent.  Will Smith has received a Golden Globe nomination for this role.  I haven't seen it yet so I can't comment any more.

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