Why I love investigative journalism cinema

The stories of intrepid reporters searching for the truth against oppressive forces serve not only as entertainment, but a reminder that such work continues to be vital.


Shivani Dubey

Over the decades, cinema has carved many niches even within beloved genres. Under the wider umbrella of horror you might find a slasher or a supernatural film, while a comedy might be ‘black’ or ‘screwball’ in nature. You could even refer to the Matthew McConaughey rom-com subgenre, or the Sean Bean screen death canon. But there is one surprisingly rich niche genre that deserves the spotlight, so to speak: investigative journalism cinema.

Films like Spotlight, All The President’s Men, She Said, The Post, Zodiac, Good Night, and Good Luck – and to some extent even Dark Waters and The Insider – have such a compelling narrative embedded within them, you cannot help but care for the causes they highlight. Even when they’re not always the most pleasant people, you’re likely to root for these intrepid reporters – and sometimes lawyers – to get to the bottom of the story (particularly if they’re played by Mark Ruffalo).

Investigative journalism films have had quite an impact on me personally. I decided I wanted to be a journalist after seeing Spotlight. There is something gripping about watching reporters figure things out purely with guts and the desire to uncover the truth. No flashed police badges or guns pointed – just vigour and a need to tell an important story no matter what.

There is a psychological reason why investigative journalism films resonate with us so much: they provide hope that the good guys will prevail and that justice will be served, even if it doesn’t seem like it. Dennis Relojo-Howell, the managing director of Psychreg, explains why we’re so drawn to them: “People are drawn to investigative journalism movies for several reasons. One possible explanation is that humans have a natural curiosity about the world around them and enjoy uncovering hidden truths. Investigative journalism movies tap into this desire to learn and understand more about a topic or event,” he says. “Additionally, investigative journalism movies often feature compelling characters who are driven by a sense of purpose and a desire to seek the truth. These characters may embody traits that we admire, such as intelligence, courage, and determination, and we become invested in their journey to uncover the truth,” he adds.

Another reason these stories prove so popular is that they claim to tell us “the truth” about a big news piece from history in a compelling, narrative driven format, free of any public discourse — which is often filled with a lot of conjecture.

“I think there are two elements which have converged over the last few years in our love for stories and in international politics. And the kind of stories we love changes over time, and I think can be traced to what is going on in society,” explains Jonny Persey, film producer and director at MetFilm School. “Over the years, I’ve noticed how we have turned the news from a staid reporting of events into narrative-driven stories, often episodic. And I think the resurgence of investigative journalism in the movies is a combination of that drive for story and the search for truth as a response to the apparent lack of it in public discourse.”

Investigative journalism movies often deal with important social and political issues or events, such as corruption, injustice, or government cover-ups. Dark Waters takes us through the work of a lawyer as he uncovers how DuPont was responsible for polluting drinking water with life threatening chemicals that caused multiple deaths in West Virginia. The Post and All The President’s Men detail how the Pentagon papers and the Watergate scandal unfolded respectively under the Nixon administration. These issues often evoke strong emotions and opinions, and provide a platform for discussing and exploring these topics.

A lot of the time, investigative journalism films highlight issues the general or global public may not be aware of. I had no idea about the DuPont deaths until I watched the film, and subsequently read the New York Times article that Todd Haynes’ Dark Waters was based on. Similarly, it wasn’t until I saw Spotlight that I knew anything about the mass-scale abuse going on in the Catholic church.

However, it is important to note that these films are entertainment first, and therefore may not always be a pure reflection of the truth. For example, when Boston Strangler was released early this year, the end credits feature a notation that the convicted murderer, George Nassar, was still in prison in Massachusetts. The reality is that Nassar died in prison in 2018. When you see a dramatisation of real life events on the big screen, it’s always good practice to look things up after to see where the facts may have been embellished.

Another compelling element of investigative journalism films is the historical aspect. When you watch All The President’s Men (or even read the book for that matter), you are taken behind the scenes of how two journalists risk everything they have in the pursuit of the truth. You see how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein worked together, gathering intel and scouring through hundreds of leads and dead ends, in order to be able to report on something bigger than they ever imagined. In this respect, these films bring audiences closer to events that shaped our world.

Whenever a filmmaker makes a film about investigative journalism, it usually coincides with a poignant time in modern human history. She Said, a film about the journalists who uncovered the sexual abuse allegations against Harvey Weinstein, came out on the heels of the #MeToo movement and the Depp-Heard trial, while Steven Spielberg’s The Post was released in theatres, as the world was neck deep into the throes of the Trump administration. In an interview with The Guardian at the time, Spielberg explained the urgency behind wanting to make the film: “The level of urgency to make the movie was because of the current climate of this administration, bombarding the press and labelling the truth as fake if it suited them.”

These films also highlight just how time consuming journalism is. Oftentimes, the general public fails to acknowledge the amount of hours, months and sometimes years that go into reporting a story — mostly due to the fact that they never see it happen. Spotlight in particular does a good job of conveying this grind, while Zodiac being set over decades highlights how those obsessed with solving the case alienated people around them.

To watch Mark Ruffalo’s Mark Rezendes give an impassioned speech about why it is necessary to expose the wrongdoings of the Catholic church in Spotlight, or Meryl Streep’s Katherine Graham stand by her reporter Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks) in The Post, or David Strathairn’s Edward Murrow tell the public about the importance of broadcast journalism in Good Night, And Good Luck evokes an emotion only this genre of cinema can manage.

Many films show us the triumph of good versus evil. The entire ethos of the superhero genre is to see the Iron Mans and Captain Americas of the world win against the bad guys – but the fact that the protagonists of investigative journalism movies are ordinary people without any superpowers is part of what makes these films so compelling. No superhero film can mimic the suspense and the fear of listening to Katherine Graham make the decision to print more of the Pentagon papers in The Post even when every other person in the room is telling her not to. The stakes feel higher in these films –  dealing in real stories about real people who have shaped our world, they combine a history lesson with elements of the political thriller and mystery genre to create a hybrid that is both entertaining and inspiring.

As a journalist, every time I suffer burnout or am overwhelmed by the volatility of this industry as a whole, a good rewatch of Spotlight never fails to restore my faith in this career choice, and remind me why I fell in love with the profession in the first place. No matter how many times I watch them, I get the same kind of rush, and the same feeling of hope that in the end, justice will prevail, no matter how hard it may seem at the start.

Published 2 May 2023

Tags: Mark Ruffalo She Said Spotlight The Post

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