By Paul Risker.
It would be all too easy to label Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight (2015) as this generation’s All the President’s Men (1976). Alan J. Pakula’s film, based on the Watergate scandal, featuring Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), has the status of a modern classic and stands as the comparison piece for any successful newspaper film since. All the President’s Men has intertextuality with new investigation films of the past and those to come. While Spotlight with its methodical journalistic investigation to uncover and reveal a story echoes All the President’s Men, it’s also in kind with Samuel Fuller’s overshadowed Park Row (1952). If pulp crime novelist and screenwriter Raymond Chandler could describe F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby (1925) as a “near perfect” work, we can imaging another famous scribe attributing such a phrase to Park Row. Fuller’s ode to the newspaper man remains one of the finest American films, one brimming with authenticity and energy in all aspects of its production. While sixty-three years separating it and Spotlight compared to the shorter thirty nine year separation with All the President’s Men, McCarthy’s film may be this generations reimagining of Park Row.
Fuller’s film tells the story of an ideological tussle between a group of former Star reporters led by Phineas Mitchell (Gene Evans) and their former employer Charity Hackett (Claire Welch), when Mitchell sets up his rival newspaper The Globe. The groundbreaking nature of Mitchell’s reporting could be envisaged as an early incarnation of the high level investigative reporting of The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative journalism team of reporters. Mitchell’s assiduous and methodical approach to laying out his newspaper and the reporting contained therein are paramount to connecting Spotlight to Park Row. Spotlight section editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Boston Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) feature shades of Mitchell’s approach – notably a shared belief in reporting stories of substance and importance. But in so doing, the three men are connected by their steadfast natures – a refusal to submit to the pressures they face in their journalistic efforts. In fact Mitchell and Robinsn each possess an inward looking and an outward looking gaze. Inwardly Mitchell is a crusader for journalistic ideology as he sees its future, while he outwardly reports stories that have a bearing on the city and its inhabitants. Robinson’s inward and outward gaze however is interrelated, as his external investigation leads to an exorcising a culture of silence that he learns has even compromised himself when Metro editor and The Boston Globe itself.
In as much as Spotlight’s characters have shades of Mitchell, the intimidation of the reporter is a further strand that threads the two films together. Yet this is an intriguing connection as it forms a yin and yang like contrast. Within Park Row there are severe acts of intimidatory violence – physical in nature – whereas Spotlight’s tactics of intimidation is verbal, and is not without a sense of irony. The culture of silence Robinson’s character sets out to expose ironically compels anything short of silence, as those implicit plead with him to prolong the silence – for the good of the city they claim. It is a radically different form of intimidation to the one Mitchell encounters, in which the competition between the rivalling newspapers is a confrontation of journalistic ideals between the antagonist Hackett and protagonist hero Mitchell. While it sees a war of words descend into a wave of physical violence, it is one that arrives at a common destination. Mitchell and Robinson each see the story they have championed go to press, Park Row and Spotlight both reaching that common crescendo that has become a tradition of the newspaper film.
Although tonally different, one of the central relationships in both Park Row and Spotlight is the relationship of the newspaper to the city. Mitchell’s inaugural story is of the arrest of Steve Bodie who survives jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge, which the perpetrator himself originally asks Mitchell to write. Following this human interest story it is the campaign he launches to raise the funds to build a base for the Statue of Liberty that sees The Globe forge a greater kinship with the city. Sixty three years on and McCarthy’s Spotlight forges a similar connection with the city of Boston, albeit one that is darker in tone – the sexual abuse of children by priests within the Boston diocese. Regardless of this shift in tone and the differences in the interaction between the city and the newspaper, both Fuller and McCarthy present stories in which the two are intertwined – a coexistence of growing permanence. Yet what remains the starkest contrast is how two filmmakers have chronicled the growth of an institution through the spatial setting of a street (Park Row) that housed many of New York’s newspapers, to a building in Boston that stands as a city’s proud institution – the growth of the conscience of the American city.
Spotlight was released on Blu-Ray and DVD on 23rd May 2016 by Entertainment One, and Park Row is available on EUREKA’S Masters of Cinema label.
Paul Risker is an independent scholar and film critic who contributes regularly to Film International. He is an Editor for Mise-en-scène: The Journal of Film and Visual Narration, which will launch in Fall 2016.