It wasn’t just Best Picture hopefuls The Revenant and The Big Short that lost out Sunday night: Donald Trump got trumped by the Oscars when the Academy handed its biggest prize to Spotlight, the film of 2015 that stands in direct contradiction to his ongoing war on journalism.
Just days ago, the GOP frontrunner escalated that war to an alarming level by promising to “open up our libel laws” to make it easier to sue newspapers—i.e., the newspapers that cross him—in what marks perhaps the most aggressive threat to the First Amendment any presidential candidate has ever publicly issued to get himself into the White House.
Addressing supporters at a Fort Worth, Texas, rally on Friday, Trump railed yet again against the Fourth Estate, singling out The New York Times and The Washington Post as “dishonest” publications before promising to give them “problems” if elected president.
“I’m going to open up our libel laws so when they write purposely negative and horrible and false articles, we can sue them and win lots of money,” he said. His anti-media comments landed with the same fervent sentiment he displayed last December when he incited a Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, crowd to turn on female NBC reporter Katy Tur, who was present in the press pen. The crowd uproar was so vicious, some worried for her safety and the safety of other journalists who might find themselves at the end of Trump’s finger-pointing fury.
“We’re going to open up those libel laws,” Trump vowed Friday. “So when The New York Times writes a hit piece which is a total disgrace or when The Washington Post, which is there for other reasons, writes a hit piece, we can sue them and win money instead of having no chance of winning because they’re totally protected.”
That’s partly why Sunday night’s victory for Spotlight, about the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Roman Catholic Church’s cover-up of child abuse within its ranks, rang as warmly in the hearts of media folk as Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s Oscars red carpet reunion did for all those Titanic lovers who never did let go, and now never will.
In the age of soul-sucking listicles and sound bites, memes and SEO and Google rankings and social media strategizing, Spotlight is a film that celebrates what Nick Schager described as “the noble virtue of speaking truth to power”—the journalistic imperative—as well as the dogged, terribly dressed reporters who chase hard stories for the good of the public, and only very rarely win Pulitzers for their efforts.
Spotlight champions the value of investing in longform reporting even as budgets and newsrooms shrink across the country, a notion that’s unlikely to affect the bottom-line decisions of the publishers who hold the purse strings, but a nice thought nonetheless. It also affirms the importance of protecting the free press—which James Madison once called, in an early draft of the Bill of Rights, “one of the great bulwarks of liberty”—from powerful institutions, government or religious or otherwise, which might seek to obstruct it to protect themselves.
Or seek to sue the pants off the press for “lots of money,” something Trump has plenty of, and which traditional newspapers and news outlets increasingly do not.
Historically, too, Spotlight represents a rarity in film and television: A positive portrayal of dogged reporters on the grind, toiling away in the face of adversity and in pursuit of the truth. There’s a reason the film, directed and co-scripted by Tom McCarthy (who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay with Josh Singer), has been heralded as the best movie about journalism since All The President’s Men: there haven’t been many other great films about hero reporters made since, let alone ones nominated for Academy Awards.
Spotlight marks a major departure from the kinds of journalism movies we’re used to seeing. Onscreen, reporters in TV and film are too often fictional, female, fickle, and/or unscrupulous. See: House of Cards’ opportunistic DC journo Zoe Barnes; Amy Schumer in Trainwreck; and Oscars host Chris Rock’s own Top Five, in which Rosario Dawson hooks up with Rock while profiling him for the New York Times (while recording her interviews on a Flip cam—perhaps Rock’s biggest “fuck you” to journalists everywhere).
Mark Ruffalo’s Oscar-nominated supporting turn as Pulitzer-winning reporter Michael Rezendes (“They knew, and they let it happen… to KIDS!”) and Rachel McAdams’ Oscar-nominated performance as Sacha Pfeiffer, the sole woman on the Globe’s Spotlight team of investigative reporters, are a far cry from, say, The Newsroom’s ranty anchor-real-journalists-loved-to-hate, Will McAvoy.
And how many Oscar-nominated movies about the press ever actually win? Both Network and All The President’s Men lost the Best Picture contest, in 1977, to Rocky. Broadcast News lost to The Last Emperor in 1988. The Insider was bested in 2000 by American Beauty. Good Night, and Good Luck fell victim to Crash at the 2006 awards, and Frost/Nixon earned a Best Pic nod in 2008—the year of Slumdog Millionaire, and the last year in which there were only five nominees vying for the top prize.
“We made this film for all the journalists who have and continue to hold the powerful accountable, and for the survivors whose courage and will to overcome is really an inspiration,” McCarthy said, praising the Boston Globe’s church abuse expose while accepting the first award of the night for Best Screenplay. “We have to make sure this never happens again.”
“We would not be here today without the heroic efforts of our reporters,” producer Blye Pagon Faust said when the film closed the 2016 Oscars by winning Best Picture. “Not only do they effect global change, but they absolutely show us the necessity for investigative journalism.”
By the end of an Oscars telecast stuffed with awkward-to-cringeworthy attempts at poking fun at the very real diversity issue that’s been plaguing the Academy since nominations day, every cause from female and LGBT visibility to climate change had a champion broadcasting their impassioned messages to millions. It was Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu who delivered one of the more pointed speeches about prejudice and inclusivity while accepting the Best Director award for The Revenant.
“There is a line in the film that [Glass says] to his mixed-race son, ‘They don’t listen to you, they just see the color of your skin,’” said Iñárritu, who also won the Best Director Oscar last year for Birdman. “So what a great opportunity to our generation to really liberate ourselves from all prejudice and, you know, this tribal thinking, and make sure for once and forever that the color of the skin become as irrelevant as the length of our hair.”
He could have been speaking of #OscarsSoWhite, or Trump’s America. “To be so rich and so bitter... It’s a poor man whose only possession is money, and that’s the lesson we all have to learn,” he said last month of Trump’s inflammatory 2015 comments about Mexican immigrants, who he described as criminals and “rapists.”
Backstage, Iñárritu expanded on his onstage comments. “The debate isn’t only about white or black,” he said, his second Best Director statue in hand, pondering if the win now means “#OscarsSoBrown.” “The complexity of society is much more than one or the other. Again, I think it’s becoming a little bit polarized and politicized without observing the complexity of this country, which is so mixed. That is the real power of this country. Still we are dragging this tribal thinking at this time seems to be absolutely absurd. I think one of the problems we’re suffering is there’s no moderate platforms to talk about something deeply. Why we cannot get rid of these prejudices about the color of skin.”
Trump, meanwhile, stayed curiously mum on Twitter during the entirety of the Oscars telecast. Elsewhere during the night other pols had their moments. Bernie backers glued to the screen eagerly cheered The Big Short’s Best Adapted Screenplay winner Adam McKay, a Bernie Sanders supporter, for warning the public against candidates financed by “big banks, oil or weirdo billionaires” during his acceptance speech—although backstage he declined to refer to any single candidate. Vice President Joe Biden, strolling onstage to introduce a musical performance by Best Song hopeful and “friend” Lady Gaga about the rape epidemic on college campuses, earned his own standing ovation so rousing it had fans and show producers alike hoping he’d announce his presidential run on-air. A picture he tweeted from the night, beaming arm in arm with Gaga, blew up his feed and earned a retweet from President Obama himself—a sign of populist power, indeed.