Spotlight outshines Truth in battle of journo dramas

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Hollywood has a long, storied tradition of making movies in duplicate. And while that trend is generally reserved for big, blockbuster titles like the giant meteor plummeting to earth actioners Deep Impact and Armageddon or 1997’s dueling volcano epics Dante’s Peak and Volcano, even smaller, indie-minded films have often left audiences “seeing double”. There were two Truman Capote biopics in 2005-2006 (Capote and Infamous), two Wyatt Earp movies in 1993-1994 (Wyatt Earp and Tombstone) and 2006 even brought two strikingly similar period magician flicks (The Illusionist and The Prestige). So, it should really come as no surprise that 2015 offered up two gritty, Oscar-bait dramas (Spotlight and Truth) about investigative journalists risking it all to break important, game-changing news stories.

The subjects tackled in both films – the Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Catholic priest sex scandal and cover-up in Spotlight and the infamous George W. Bush Texas Ranger/military service scandal that derailed the careers of Dan Rather and Peabody Award-winning 60 Minutes producer Mary Mapes in 2004 in Truth – have drama and intrigue to burn and I’m a total sucker for any film that features writers and journalists as heroes. But in this cinematic head-to-head, Spotlight “scoops” Truth by a country mile.

For though both films feature A-list ensemble casts playing passionate, hard-charging journalists chasing juicy news stories in the early 2000s, the similarities between Truth and the Oscar-nominated Spotlight pretty much end there.

Let’s start with Truth. Big and loud when it should be intimate and real and showy and cliche when it should be earnest and authentic, Truth misses the mark so handily on so many fronts that it makes the bungled 60 Minutes reporting at the heart of the film look like a portrait of journalistic restraint.

And while most of Truth’s big structural problems fall squarely on the shoulders of first time director James Vanderbilt (who cut his teeth as a screenwriter on the Spider-Man reboots, White House Down and David Fincher’s Zodiak) with the exception of Robert Redford, who works magic with a woefully underwritten part as Dan Rather, the cast in Truth is equally uneven. And when you have seasoned vets like Dennis Quaid, Bruce Greenwood, Topher Grace and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss lending support onscreen to two-time Oscar winner Cate Blanchett as Mapes that is really saying something.

The actual story in Truth is a good one and you do genuinely root for Blanchett and company to stand firm and sock it to the Bush administration, CBS, and their legions of smug, soulless lawyers at times. In the end, however, the film’s plea for journalistic integrity in the new media age unravels quicker than the sloppy Southern twang in Blanchett’s performance.

On the other end of the spectrum entirely is Spotlight, which was recently nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Original Screenplay, Best Director and Best Picture. Directed by indie kingpin Tom McCarthy (who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer) Spotlight stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci.

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Based on the true story of how the deep dive Spotlight team at the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic Church child sexual abuse scandal and cover-up in 2001, Spotlight is infused with the raw, ticking clock urgency of a first rate political thriller and the effect is well, thrilling in the extreme. Deep, emotional, and hard-hitting in the best sense, Spotlight is also that rare film that makes you want to get out there and actually do something to make sure nothing like this ever happens again.

Key in achieving this powerful immediacy is McCarthy and Singer’s decision to focus not just on the story itself but on the actual impact the scandal and ensuing cover-up had on the victims, the city of Boston, and even the journalists themselves, several of whom were Catholic. Their journey becomes our journey and while that somehow makes things a little easier to process once the true, bone-chilling scope of the scandal and cover-up comes into focus, it also made me very angry at the searing injustice of it all. And I suppose that’s the point.

Already a modern journalistic classic along the lines of All The President’s Men, The Insider and Network, Spotlight reminds us all of just how powerful words on a page can be actually be, even in the digital age.

Truth is currently playing on select Singapore Airlines, United, Emirates, and Qantas flights worldwide and Spotlight is playing throughout the month on select United and Delta flights. Both films are also available via streaming at iTunes.