As you may have heard, the makers of the Oscar-winning movie Spotlight have reached a settlement with Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn about his claim that the film depicts him in an unfavorable manner regarding the cover-up of the pedophile-priest scandal.
Spotlight tells the story of The Boston Globe‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation that revealed that Cardinal Bernard Law, then the archbishop, was directly involved in reassigning priests who’d been accused of sexual abuse. The Dunn character is seen taking part in a meeting about a pedophile priest at Boston College High School.
The Associated Press reports on the settlement here; The New York Times covers it here; the Globehere; and the Boston Heraldhere.
As part of the settlement, the filmmakers acknowledge that the lines attributed to Dunn were “fabricated,” which is kind of odd when you think about it. Spotlight, of course, is a work of fiction, though based on true events. In that sense, every line in Spotlight is fabricated. The question is whether Dunn was portrayed in a manner that is fundamentally false.
The filmmakers have contended from the time Dunn went public with his complaints in a Globe column by Kevin Cullen that Dunn is not portrayed in a negative light—rather, that he comes across “as an alumnus and public-relations professional from an affiliated institution, was concerned about the reputation of BC High, and acted in concert with his affiliation and professional training,” as the filmmakers put it in a letter reported by the Globe last November. In the settlement, the filmmakers say:
As is the case with most movies based on historical events, ‘Spotlight’ contains fictionalized dialogue that was attributed to Mr. Dunn for dramatic effect. We acknowledge that Mr. Dunn was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up.
From what I can tell, there’s nothing in the settlement that contradicts what the filmmakers said last November, or that calls into question the recollections of Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer, who were at the BC High meeting.
At the time that this controversy broke, I wrote a piece for WGBH News about the hazards of true-life movies that freely mix fact and fiction. I certainly don’t question the pain that Dunn says he experienced. From the beginning the dispute has struck me as a genuine disagreement between him and the filmmakers over how he comes across in the movie.
That said, I’ve only seen Spotlight once, and I’d like to see that scene again.
The dispute between Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn and the makers of “Spotlight” is escalating. “Spotlight,” as you no doubt know, is a movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on the pedophile-priest scandal in the Catholic Church.
For the past few days, starting with a Kevin Cullen column in Sunday’s Globe, Dunn has been making media appearances claiming that he was falsely portrayed in the movie as uncaring toward victims at BC High School. The filmmakers have pushed back hard, arguing that the depiction of Dunn is accurate and that it was vetted by Globe reporters Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer.
According to an exchange of letters that I obtained this evening, Dunn’s lawyers are accusing the filmmakers of portraying Dunn in a way that is “defamatory” as well as “false, malicious and fabricated.” The letter on behalf of Dunn, addressed primarily to screenwriters Tom McCarthy and Joshua Singer (McCarthy is also the director), says in part:
In general, the film, in dramatic fashion, divides the individuals it depicts into those who heroically searched for the truth about the horrific sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy and those who sought to suppress facts about the abuse. In a critical scene in the film, which is nearly entirely fabricated, Spotlight squarely and falsely places Mr. Dunn in the category of those who actively attempted to interfere with and thwart the efforts of the Boston Globe reporters to unearth and report on the abuse scandal.
In their answer, the filmmakers’ lawyers “respectfully, but vigorously, disagree with your allegation that the film defames Mr. Dunn.” Here’s a key excerpt:
Most importantly, the film’s portrayal of Mr. Dunn is substantially true. It is based on the recollections of Walter Robinson and was vetted by him and Sacha Pfeiffer. Mr. Dunn’s overarching concern for Boston College High School (and Boston College) is reflected in contemporaneous and later media accounts. Indeed, there is no evidence that Mr. Dunn was an outspoken advocate for transparency or accountability before the Boston Globe broke the story, or that he came forward on his own to initiate an investigation into abuse at BC High before the Globe’s coverage forced the school to act.
I am posting these rather lengthy documents in the interest of putting them before the public in advance of what could be a significant legal battle.
Click here (pdf) for the full letter (with exhibits) from Dunn’s lawyers, David H. Rich and Howard M. Cooper of the Boston firm Todd & Weld.
Click here (pdf) for the full letter (also with exhibits) from the filmmakers’ lawyer, Alonzo Wickers IV of the Los Angeles firm Davis Wright Tremaine. No, I do not know why parts of it have been highlighted in yellow.
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 Spotlight, issued 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.”