‘Spotlight’ review

I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. So I thought I’d write a review of it, my first film review in years (I used to write them all the time).

If you’re not familiar with the premise, it focuses on the Spotlight investigative reporting unit at The Boston Globe (reporters Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer and their editor, Walter V. Robinson) and its investigation of allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped uncover wider abuse on a global scale.

Journalists of my generation arguably don’t (didn’t!) have a “newspaper film” for our era. There’s “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” both far removed (socially, culturally and technologically) from our current time. Even “Spotlight,” taking place 13-14 years ago in 2001-02, feels slightly dated, a definite product of its time (which is an observation, not a quality judgment; it could be called a period piece).

The organic growth of the investigation, done at the urging of new editor Marty Baron (who’s now leading The Washington Post), is something amazing to watch. It’s a testament to the menial work involved in deep digging; in one scene, the team works through a spreadsheet line by line, collecting what they need. Old newspaper clips are dug out of the archives, doors are knocked on, sources are met in coffee shops and parks and offices, and legal documents are sifted through. When the final story lands on doorsteps, you know where it came from.

And the story is what’s essential here. The focus is always on the story. We get to know the reporters and editors (an assortment of outsiders with a fresh perspective, lapsed Catholic Boston-breds and veterans who maybe should have pursued this story sooner). We appreciate their motivations and feel for them as they hit roadblocks and try to wade through paperwork and finesse sources. But they are not the focus; it is the story. And the actors (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe reporters/editors) successfully convey the motivations of the staff without making it all about them.

Finally, everything feels earned. When there is an outburst, it springs from genuine, earned frustration, not self-righteous grandstanding. The obstacles to the story are not death threats or bricks through windows, but bureaucratic red tape and slammed doors. It feels raw and earthy. The basement Spotlight newsroom feels lived in, the journalists dress like they don’t care how they look (and why would they?) and the city of Boston feels organic and alive. The abuse that is the focus of the investigation is like a horde of cockroaches that scatters when you turn on the light or lift up the rug. There is no sudden horrific epiphany or silver bullet, just confirmations of what these people had already figured out for themselves but needed proof of to include in the report.

This is the kind of film that necessitates discussion and reflection. We may not see another film about journalism this good for a long, long time.

Some thoughts, pre-trip

In about four days, I’ll be heading to London and Prague for a week. I’m putting the final touches on my packing, checking my to-do list and making sure I have everything printed out that we’ll need. I’m very excited to see my boyfriend again after almost a year apart.

I wanted to share a final list of what all we’ll be doing. I’m actually pretty amazed that we’ll be able to fit it all inside a week, and it’s a testament to our teamwork and planning abilities. So without further ado, here are the highlights of our upcoming trip:

  • The National Gallery in London
  • The British Museum
  • A proper curry dinner
  • BBC Proms concert featuring Yo-Yo Ma
  • The Spanish Synagogue and Old Jewish Cemetery in Prague
  • Prague Castle and St. Vitus Cathedral
  • Our Lady Victorious church
  • An evening Prague ghost tour
  • A visit to Petrin Hill and the Stefanik Observatory in Prague
  • Lunch at a Michelin-starred restaurant
  • The Beer Museum
  • An alternative walking tour of Prague
  • A Prague cocktail bar specializing in Prohibition-era drinks
  • A breakout game in Prague
  • A boat tour on the Vltava River
  • SkyGarden in London
  • Borough Market in London
  • The Tate Modern
  • Dinner with one of my friends in London
  • “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre
  • A picnic in Hyde Park
  • Harrods
  • The Victoria & Albert Museum
  • Two “secret” places we’ve each picked out to surprise the other

It’s a lot, isn’t it? And yet somehow we’ll be doing it, and more. I can’t wait.

Some summer self-improvement

I read constantly. All day, nearly every day, for my job. I read for a living. Because of that, when I’m off the clock, whatever I do, I really do not want to keep reading. It hit me, while I was on a recent flight and trying to find something to fill my time, that something I used to love to do was now almost unbearable.

So as this summer continues and as it starts to wind down, I’m making a pledge to myself: I’m going to read more for pleasure, even if I don’t want to. Once I start reading, I don’t regret doing it. It’s just getting the urge to start. I’m deep into a Tom Holland historical non-fiction book about the end of the ancient world and the rise of Islam, “The Shadow of the Sword.” Next I’m planning to check off a book that’s long been on my list: Neil Gaiman’s “American Gods.”

I actually have my boyfriend to thank for this jump start. Sensing that I was becoming listless and in need of a hobby besides coming from and going to work and Netflix, he nudged me back toward my books. I’m also planning to take some time for myself to pick up some basic coding skills (which he’s promised to teach me at some point, but I’d like a head start).

Lately I’ve been trying to be more conscientious about myself and how I use my time. I wouldn’t call it a full-on existential crisis, but merely a renewed understanding that my time is limited and that zoning out to old “Friends” episodes is probably not the best use of it (I’m on season 9 now, though, so almost done). I’m also thinking about possible career moves in the future and am afraid of limiting myself or being pigeon-holed. A hobby might very well one day lead to a new career, or it can help keep me sane. Either way, I’m making this my summer of self-improvement.

Trip-planning as a couple

As September gets closer, I’m putting final touches on my planned holiday with my boyfriend. This isn’t our first vacation together, but it’s the first one that requires international travel for both of us, and the first one to require substantial planning and booking ahead of time. With our previous trip to Manchester and the Lake District, we showed up at hotels where we’d booked, ate where we wanted and went to whatever museums we wanted. It was generally unhurried and relaxed. This year, though, the planning is more intensive.

I booked my flight for September back in March, and at about that same time, booked tickets to see “Much Ado About Nothing” at the Globe Theatre in London. This was for a play six months away and seats were still mostly sold out or unavailable. This past weekend, I managed to secure tickets for a Yo-Yo Ma solo performance at Royal Albert Hall, part of the BBC Proms concert series. The tickets sold out the same day they became available and I was lucky to get them.

Still ahead for booking: our return flight to Prague, Gatwick Express return tickets, tickets to visit the Sky Garden in London, ghost tour tickets in Prague, the Prague Card combination museum/transit pass, seven of our eight nights in hotels, some restaurants (including the Michelin-starred Alcron in Prague) and Thorpe Park tickets. Some things we’re doing were my idea, some were his idea and some came from both of us. It’s compromise, and it’s wonderful.

Just thinking about the sheer amount of stuff we’re fitting into this week is taxing. But that also makes it unique and amazing, the second in what I hope will be an extensive series of holidays, both long and short, for us as partners.

I’ve heard before that if you and your partner can travel successfully together, you’ll be OK. While we didn’t travel too extensively last time, we were able to catch trains and find hotels smoothly. I’d say we passed the initial hurdle. We didn’t fight or get frustrated with each other. This coming trip will require a little more coordination and put us more to the test, but I can’t wait. I love talking about it with my boyfriend and I love the two of us working together to create an experience that’s ours.

September to remember

I’ve spent the past couple of days meticulously planning a late summer trip with my boyfriend. We have a lot to celebrate, as he recently achieved an internship/training placement with a job offer at the end of it.

We decided to move our holiday from August to September, because his work placement starts in August and he wanted time to arrange his holiday time off.

Assuming he can get the time off, we’re spending a day in London, then heading off to Prague for four nights. Our Prague sightseeing list includes Prague Castle, the Old Jewish Cemetery, Charles Bridge, St. Vitus Cathedral and the Clementinum. The plan is to head back to London on a late flight, spend another day in the city (“Much Ado About Nothing” is playing at the Globe Theatre; it is my favorite Shakespearean play so it feels like serendipity), then visit Thorpe Park on our last day.

If he can’t secure the time off, then I’ll simply stay with him that week and we’ll do what we have time do in the area. The important thing is that we’ll be able to see each other after a year (?!) apart. Everything is coming together, and I couldn’t be happier to head back to my favorite city and discover another one.

‘House of Cards’ has a lady journo problem

Caution that there are some spoilers here, up to about the last 2-3 episodes of the third season. I don’t think it’s anything drastic but use your discretion.

The first thing a lot of people would ask me, when I told them I watched “House of Cards,” is what I thought of Zoe Barnes.

I’m a female journalist, she was a female journalist and most of my non-journalist friends and family apparently assumed that I’d root for her or find her to be some kindred spirit.

I did not.

I actually found her to be an entitled, unethical brat. At some point in the social media age, journalists became aware of themselves as a “brand” apart from the outlet for which they worked. The best reporters and editors brought their own followings along no matter where they worked. In that sense, Zoe’s aggressive self-promotion seemed like a response to this trend of “personal branding.”

But it will never be a trend to become sexually and emotionally involved with a source. So rather than root for Zoe when she began sleeping with Frank Underwood and launching her career off the manipulated intel he gave her (she more or less acted as his one-woman PR firm), I felt no camaraderie, only disgust. And when Janine Gorsky, who had been set up as a more experienced, more hard-nosed alternative to Zoe, confided to Zoe that she had in the past been “sucking, screwing, and jerking anything that moved just to get a story,” my confidence that “Cards” would ever get female journalists right plummeted. It was not just an issue with Zoe; it was lady journos in general, it seemed.

There was a brief flicker of hope near the end of Season 2 and through the early part of Season 3 when Ayla Sayyad replaced Zoe as the series’ journalism focus. She seemed to ask decent questions and managed to avoid sleeping with a source (that we saw) throughout her duration. Her reward for appearing to meet the bare competency threshold? Being dismissed from the White House press corps, sold out by a fellow journalist in exchange for access to information that had been under a moratorium. (And also, that is absolutely not how White House press credentials work.)

Kate Baldwin, Ayla’s successor, showed up with a lot of promise. She vowed to ask tougher questions and had hallmarks of being a grizzled veteran. That promise took a swan dive as soon as she began an affair with Thomas Yates, who was on the president’s payroll as, let’s call a spade a spade, a propagandist. That Thomas started out as an (uncooperative) source wasn’t a deterrent, nor did Kate seem particularly bothered by not covering scheduled events (aka the job for which she was getting paid) in order to have a tryst in a hotel room on the trail. To her credit, Kate does point out the conflict of interest when Thomas tries to leak to her a chapter of the book he’s writing, but at that point it’s too late and it comes off as incredibly half-assed.

So of the four prominent female journalists in the series, three of them have slept with their sources, one of them was railroaded out of her beat and one of them printed a congressman’s talking points more or less verbatim for the sole purpose of advancing her own career. Male journalists, interestingly, haven’t played as large of a role in the series. Tom Hammerschmidt, Zoe’s old boss, is treated as a hardass dinosaur who’s behind the times. Lucas Goodwin comes off as lovesick over Zoe and too easily falls into a trap, but there are hints that his previous work has been of good quality and effected change. Kate’s editor at the fictional Telegraph has a brief appearance, but all he really does is squash her barnstorming writing by pointing out the silly notion that writing a full-on column is not good practice for a supposedly impartial news reporter (and Kate’s response is to just move into column-writing, even at the expense of her climb up the masthead). All of the male journalists we meet have one major thing in common: We see none of them sleeping with sources.

Is this what Beau Willimon and Co. actually think female journalists (or journalists in general) do? I hope not. Is our line of work being made more tawdry for the sake of drama? Surely. Is there something more scintillating about a female reporter who can’t manage to not bang a source? I guess? I do know dozens of female reporters and editors, and every one of them takes her job very seriously. They’re talented enough and connected enough to rely on their skills and reputations. And seeing their work distilled into what’s on display in “House of Cards” is incredibly depressing, even though I do enjoy the show.

And yes, the show is fictional. It does not accurately convey the realities of Congress, the White House, lobbying, the United Nations, bilateral agreements, … nth. But being a female journalist is one thing that I at least have the experience to speak out about. Give us a female reporter or editor who isn’t a stenographer, a backstabber, a liar and/or a source bedmate. Too much to ask?

Czech mate

My boyfriend and I have decided to spend a few days in Prague this August. The plan is for me to fly to London, for us to spend a couple of days together there, then go to Prague, and then fly back to London for another couple of days.

Prague is one of the major cities I’ve wanted to visit but haven’t been able to yet. We agreed to go somewhere neither of us had been, and Prague fit the bill. Its weather in the summer, numerous museums, gorgeous architecture and inexpensive food and beer made it a clear choice.

So that is my next international adventure. The time should go by quickly, as I prepare to move into a new apartment, visit my parents in July and go through major transitions at work.

Anyone with good tips for what to see and do in Prague, let me have it. Likewise, if anyone has a good language resource for Czech, that’d be great, too!