‘Spotlight,’ ‘Trumbo,’ ‘Truth’: What Makes a Great Film About Free Speech?

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TORONTO: When it comes to the Bill of Rights, the First Amendment is the biggest crowd-pleaser. Everyone loves to rail against those would threaten a free press, and rightly so — it’s a fundamental democratic principle. But it’s also invoked far too often for political purposes; exploring the real obstacles to a free press is a trickier proposition, and a much worthier project.

Three films premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival this past week — Trumbo, Truth, and Spotlight — examine the fragility of the First Amendment in eras past and present, but their effectiveness depends entirely on their ability to apply that lens of scrutiny to themselves. It’s easy to simply point fingers at the other side (and to be fair, Joseph McCarthy makes a tidy villain), but only one of these films is willing to look beyond partisan debates and offer a balanced approach to an historically complex issue.

It’s not Trumbo. Jay Roach’s political drama is not a terrible film — for one, it features crackling dialogue befitting its screenwriter subject — but it’s a strictly one-sided affair. Bryan Cranston plays Dalton Trumbo, an author, screenwriter, and registered Communist who refuses to play ball with the House Un-American Activities Committee, and is imprisoned and eventually blacklisted, along with nine of his colleagues.

His is a story worth telling, but the script sacrifices nuance for political purpose. Trumbo was a complex person, known in some circles as a “swimming pool Communist” for both his love of riches and commitment to the cause. The film gives voice to this viewpoint early on but never explores it. Instead, Trumbo simply treats him as a martyr for the First Amendment. Early on, he hands out flyers extolling the freedom of the press (leading to one of the film’s best scenes, a confrontation with John Wayne), and when he continues to work despite the blacklist, it is depicted as a subversive victory for those freedoms.

It’s an occasionally inspiring but ultimately uncritical work, and its limited impact is embodied in Cranston’s performance itself. The production of Trumbo took place between Cranston’s turn in LBJ: All the Way on Broadway and his HBO adaptation of it (filming now). In this film, he gives a similarly comical, theatrical performance that is broadly entertaining but reveals no insights about Trumbo the man. Trumbo the film follows suit.

James Vanderbilt’s Truth, about the downfall of Dan Rather following his controversial story on George W. Bush’s time in the National Guard, suffers from some of the same problems. The protagonist is actually not Rather (Robert Redford) but his producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), who conceives of the story and shepherds it too quickly through the vetting process. One of the film’s successes is how Vanderbilt effortlessly weaves Mapes’ personal life — her relationship with her father takes center stage in one unforgettable scene — into her professional crisis, which softens its otherwise partisan tone.

Disappointingly, Vanderbilt takes the opposite tack with Rather, framing him only as a symbol of the death of journalism by corporate/government collusion. Truth argues that Rather was brought down not by his team’s mistakes (of which there were several) but by political pressure applied by right-wing bloggers and corporate overloads beholden to the Bush administration. He’s not wrong, but the way Vanderbilt brushes off those initial mistakes makes the film vulnerable to those who would prefer to label it propaganda. Like his characters, Vanderbilt asks us to focus on the big picture — yes, George W. Bush probably evaded military service. But in news, the facts matter. They also matter in a film that calls itself Truth.

Compared to Truth and Trumbo, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a paragon of political restraint and self-reflection. It takes a thoughtful, evenhanded view of the press that makes it stand out, but regardless of any comparison, it’s terrific film — a taut, old-school journalistic thriller about the Boston Globe‘s investigation into child abuse in the Catholic Church. The film follows a small team of reporters (led by Michael Keaton) who meet with survivors, shake down witnesses, and dig deep into old court records to build a story strong enough to bring about systemic change.

McCarthy is a whiz with stories of characters seeking redemption for past mistakes (The Station Agent, The Visitor), and Spotlight eventually deals with similar themes. As a viewer, you keep waiting for a conspiracy to reveal itself, or for some powerful force to shut down the story. In the end, the characters must address their own biases (i.e., their aversion to seeing the truth about the Church and their hometown) in order to understand how a story so horrible could have avoided scrutiny for so long. In this case, the freedom of the press is threatened not by government conspiracy or institutional power but by members the press themselves — and all of their flawed humanity.

Still, regardless of their quality, the fact that these films were made at all is a bit of a triumph for free speech; the medium was not considered protected under the First Amendment until 1952. There was a time when movies about a Communist oppressed by the government, a journalist threatened by a corporatized media, and a religion that preyed upon young boys wouldn’t have been made at all. Under the Hays Code, you couldn’t even show a minister of religion to be a “comic character or villain.” But with freedom comes responsibility, and of these three films, only Spotlight lives up to that responsibility. It argues in favor of a free press that deserves both praise and scrutiny. Conveniently, that’s also what makes it a great film.