‘Spotlight’ demonstrates how Hollywood distorts reality

Jack Dunn on WGBH's "Greater Boston."

Jack Dunn on WGBH’s “Greater Boston.”

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Consider the contradictions posed by a movie that’s based on a true story. The events are presented as real, yet they are compressed and exaggerated for dramatic effect. The characters — many of them, anyway — are stand-ins for their real-life counterparts, sharing their names and, depending on the skill of the actors, their appearance and mannerisms. Yet the words that come out of their mouths are not things they actually said; rather, they are things the filmmakers imagine they might have said.

Or, as at least four people in the film Spotlight claim, things that they never said, never would have said, and that tarnish their reputations.

  • Update: Open Road, the distributor of Spotlight, has issued a statement defending the accuracy of the portrayal of Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn. See details at the end of this post.

In fact, there is nothing new or unusual about such complaints. They are inherent to the genre of “true life” stories, quotation marks used advisedly. Spotlight is a terrific movie — maybe the best film about journalism since All the President’s Men. That doesn’t excuse smearing the names of good people, if that is indeed what has happened. But it does underline the problems that can arise in the making of fact-based fiction rooted in real events and real people.

The most aggrieved of the Spotlight four is Jack Dunn, the spokesman for Boston College and a trustee at Boston College High School. Dunn’s character is seen as minimizing the pedophile-priest scandal in a meeting attended by Boston Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer. It was, Dunn said in a column by the Globe’s Kevin Cullenand in an interview on WGBH’s Greater Boston, the opposite of the approach he took.

“The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims,” Dunn told Cullen, adding that he literally threw up after seeing the movie. “It makes me look callous and indifferent.”

The others who’ve spoken out are Eric MacLeish, a lawyer for many of the victims, who is cast — wrongly, he says — as helping to cover up the scandal by reaching secret settlements with the church; longtime investigative reporter Steve Kurkjian, who comes across as a skeptic of his colleagues’ work; and former Globe publisher Richard Gilman, who, in a commentary for the Arizona Daily Star, debunks a scene in the movie in which he is seen telling editor Marty Baron about his worries that going after the Catholic Church might hurt the paper’s bottom line. Gilman puts in a good word for Kurkjian as well.

Kurkjian is someone I know and respect. So I sympathize with him when he says (as he told Jack Encarnacao of the Boston Herald), “They sort of put words in our mouth. You can’t do that and not have your motives and your professionalism called into question.”

Yet such complaints are hardly unique to Spotlight. Indeed, they were an issue in All the President’s Men, the last time a movie about investigative reporting commanded the national stage. In her 2007 book Woodward and Bernstein: Life in the Shadow of Watergate, Alicia Shepard writes that fictional elements of the movie resulted in deep wounds in The Washington Post’s newsroom — wounds that, in some cases, never fully healed.

In particular, Shepard tells us, top editors Barry Sussman and Howard Simons suffered “permanent psychic damage” — Sussman for being left out of the film altogether despite playing an important role in the early days of the Watergate story, Simons for coming across as a reluctant warrior who had to be prodded by executive editor Ben Bradlee when, in fact, the opposite was true, at least early on. Shepard continues:

Bradlee and Simons had been such close friends that they had promised to take care of each other’s children if anything ever happened to one of them. Yet Simons became so embittered by the movie version co-opting the truth that their friendship was never the same, though they did make peace before Simons died in 1989.

My own encounter with the limitations of the true-life genre came in the late 1990s with the release of A Civil Action, a second-rate movie starring John Travolta that was based on a first-rate book of the same name written by the journalist Jonathan Harr. The book and movie told the story of a 1986 trial in federal court over contaminated wells in Woburn that had been linked to a number of childhood leukemia cases, some fatal. I spent years covering the story, including the trial and its aftermath, for The Daily Times Chronicle of Woburn.

The film took numerous liberties with the facts, and I wrote about some of them for The New Republic. Among other things, the judge, Walter Jay Skinner, was presented as an ogre who was out to destroy the families’ lawyer, Jan Schlichtmann. The Skinner I observed during the 78-day trial was a fair-minded jurist who occasionally became angry over Schlichtmann’s frantic, clumsy courtroom presentation. The trial didn’t end well for Schlichtmann or his clients, but that had much to do with the limits of 1980s science, not with Judge Skinner.

As for Spotlight, I suspect the controversy will blow over rather quickly. Jack Dunn has hired legal help and is demanding that the movie be edited (not likely) and that he receive an apology (possible).

“These are hard cases, emotionally and legally,” Robert Bertsche, a prominent First Amendment lawyer with the Boston law firm Prince Lobel, told me by email. “If they pressed their claims in court, those who claim they are injured by their portrayal in this film would have to prove that the depiction of them was not protected opinion, and not based on facts that are substantially true. Thirteen years later, that will be an immensely difficult task.”

The thing is, Spotlight is a hell of a movie that tells some important truths about the role of journalism in holding powerful institutions to account. You should see it.

But a movie such as Spotlight is not a documentary. It is a work of fiction, based on true events. “Jack Dunn” is not Jack Dunn. What happened to him, Eric MacLeish, Steve Kurkjian and Richard Gilman has happened to many others in many movies over the course of many years. It may not be fair. But that’s show biz.

Update: Open Road, the distributor of Spotlightissued a statement to The Wrap earlier this week defending the accuracy of its portrayal of Jack Dunn. “The production believes in everyone’s right to speak their minds on the complicated legacy of this important story,” a spokesman is quoted as saying. “Jack Dunn is no exception. However, we disagree with his characterization of the scene as misleading.”

The statement goes on to say that Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer reviewed the scene in question, and that they believe it reflects “the substance of what occurred during this initial interview at BC High.” The statement continues that the scene “portrays Mr. Dunn acting as any reasonably cautious representive of BC High would have during a first meeting, especially one who is a public relations professional, alumnus, and trustee.”

Update II: Lawyers for Jack Dunn and for the filmmakers have exchanged letters as the war of words heats up. The Globe has now published an article on the dispute as well.