What do All the President’s Men, Network, Capote, Broadcast News, Citizen Kane, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Insider, Frost/Nixon all have in common? They were films up for Best Picture. They were also films about journalists. Most of them are about good journalism. Citizen Kane is about Charles Foster Kane. It is about a man who couldn’t find happiness or true love for all the money in the world. But it is also about getting the story behind that man. It Happened One Night is probably the only film about journalism to win Best Picture, back in 1934, but was it really about journalism? If Spotlight wins Best Picture it will become the first film fully and completely about journalism to win.
Industry voters like movies about writers. They like movies where journalists or critics are portrayed as snakes, like in Birdman or All About Eve. Less so when the journalists are heroes. They shut out Zodiac and mostly snubbed Almost Famous. They certainly have no problem nominating films about journalists that bespeak a bigger issue, like All the President’s Men, for instance, which, like Spotlight, highlights the importance of investigative reporting. On the flipside of this story was the even bigger story about the Bush administration’s treatment of 60 Minutes, Dan Rather and Mary Mapes in Truth, but journalists have all but shunned that movie. It struggles at the box office as a result and will likely be ignored by industry voters, unfortunately. When the president’s men “investigate” the reporters who are digging up a story and the minions win? That’s important.
All the same, Spotlight is about something bigger than even journalistic integrity. It is about, of course, the moment when true believers in the Catholic church found out the truth about pedophiles hiding and operating within it. Spotlight is about tracking down and revealing that story. It is about the victims. And it’s about disillusionment in the church overall. For hard core Boston born Catholics that’s a big deal.
Still, standing right in front of it is the same problem Room has winning. Room is centered around a child. The last time a film won Best Picture with a child’s plight at the center was in 1968, with Oliver! They are very different movies, and Room is (to my mind, anyway) more about the woman – Brie Larson – than it is about the kid. It is also about bigger issues, like the recent spate of this kind of kidnapping and imprisonment. Still, when it comes to Best Picture it will have to buck the trend, just as Spotlight will.
Spotlight and Room also have the disadvantage of not being released by a major studio. The only film in recent memory to win that wasn’t backed by one of the big guns was Summit’s The Hurt Locker, which had the energy boost of being the first film directed by a woman to win. Nothing was going to stop it, not its terrible box office, not its releasing studio. But. Inside Llewyn Davis was released by CBS Films and did not fare well with Oscar voters. We know what happened to Boyhood last year and it was released by IFC Films. Beasts of No Nation will have that hurdle to leap as it’s released by (god bless them) Netflix.
The studio monopoly is understandable. The only outsiders to really break through were Harvey and Bob Weinstein, first with Miramax and then with Weinstein Co. They have had no problem winning Best Picture. It is understandable that the industry would be more studio focused. That is their bread and butter after all. Most of them work within the studio system. Fox Searchlight and Focus were built to answer the divide between big studio movies and and the rise of indies (a story for a different time).
The Martian has to break through the “sci fi” curse in a similar fashion, just as Return of the King had to break the fantasy curse. Avatar couldn’t do it. Gravity couldn’t do it. Can The Martian? These kinds of traditions are only traditions until they’re broken. The Artist was the first French silent film to win, for instance. But genre movies are another matter. When a film is a standard drama, the kind of film Hollywood usually goes for, why would they not want to award films with journalists in them?
One thing I know from talking with industry professionals is that they generally don’t like journalists because they’ve been screwed over by them. Whether they like them or not actually comes second to their not trusting them. Could it be that the stakes don’t feel as high to them when journalists are the protagonists? Or is it that the films about journalists tend to be more intellectually and less emotionally driven?
Many continue to praise All the President’s Men and Network as two of the greatest films ever made but they both lost to Rocky, a film about a boxer trying to make something of himself. Broadcast News lost to The Last Emperor – an epic sweep of a movie about as far from Broadcast News as you can get. Citizen Kane lost to How Green was My Valley, The Insider lost to American Beauty, etc.
Either way, Spotlight is headed for the big show because it is one of the best films of the year. Brooding, moody and ultimately shattering in its slow reveal of the truth. But it is about journalists. Their integrity and devotion to a story and their careful reporting. In its own way, it is like Birdman which lamented the changing direction of Hollywood away from nuts and bolts filmmaking towards effects driven money machines. Spotlight is about a time when journalists still had the power to make real news without it being clickbait.