The 'Spotlight' Problem: Movies About Journalism Get Nominated for Best Picture. Why Don't They Win?

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, Michael Keaton and John Slattery co-star in "Spotlight." Open Road Films

At the 49th Academy Awards, two instantly iconic depictions of journalism on film—one fictional, the other stranger than fiction—competed for top prizes.

It was 1977. Network, the ever-quotable portrait of a "mad prophet" TV anchor whose on-air breakdown leads to soaring ratings, nearly swept the acting categories: Peter Finch (in a posthumous victory) won Best Actor for his performance as Howard Beale; Faye Dunaway took home Best Actress; and Beatrice Straight won Best Supporting despite spending a record-short five minutes on screen. All the President's Men, the sprawling, step-by-step unraveling of the Watergate investigation that inspired a generation of reporters, garnered eight nominations and four wins, including Best Supporting Actor (Jason Robards).

And in the Best Picture category, for which both movies were nominated, the award went to—well, it went to Rocky.

Movies about the news media get Best Picture nominations. They just don't seem to win. The pattern is an old one. Citizen Kane, the story of a newspaper mogul loosely based on William Randolph Hearst, got a nomination in 1942 but lost to John Ford's How Green Was My Valley. The prior year, Alfred Hitchcock's Foreign Correspondent—starring Joel McCrea as an American reporter tracking enemy spies—lost to a very different Hitchcock film, Rebecca. Broadcast News lost to The Last Emperor at the 1988 awards, several years after The Killing Fields lost to Amadeus. More insultingly, Good Night, and Good Luck, George Clooney's thoughtful depiction of a McCarthy-era Edward R. Murrow, lost to a movie sometimes considered the worst Best Picture winner in Oscars history: 2005's Crash.

It has been nearly 70 years since a journalism movie won Best Picture. The deserving Gentleman's Agreement (1947) has Gregory Peck as a reporter assigned to write an article about anti-Semitism, so he poses as a Jew to experience prejudice firsthand.

Now we have Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's superbly detailed look at how a Boston Globe investigation team exposed the Boston Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. It's not just a great journalism movie—the film's won over journalists for its accurate depiction of a newsroom, down to the frumpy reporter outfits—but a great movie, full-stop. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams are deeply convincing as tireless Globe reporters who pursue the abuse story to its wrenching limits, while Liev Schreiber helps round out the ensemble with a complex performance as the newly appointed editor whose Boston-outsider status helps him to see the institutional injustice others don't.

It has a shot at Best Picture, considering the acclaim it's amassed and some major wins at Saturday night's Independent Spirit Awards. But it's not a great one. Many predictions forecast that The Revenant will emerge victorious from its horse carcass of pain and suffering. The Revenant has already won top honors from the Golden Globes and Directors Guild of America, solid (if not guaranteed) predictors of where the Best Picture award will swing. And while not a better film than Spotlight, Alejandro Iñárritu's survival movie is surely a flashier one, with Leonardo DiCaprio's showdown with a grizzly bear garnering the most chatter.

So why do movies about journalism, even great ones, have trouble locking down the top honor? An easy answer is that films like Spotlight naturally appeal to journalists and writers somewhat more than general audiences (or, yes, Oscar voters). Critical acclaim helps propel such movies to a nomination, where they are bested by flashier fare.

Spotlight is an example of a "Superhero Journalist" movie, and it's pretty closely akin to All the President's Men in this category. No wonder reporters love it. It demonstrates the power of (investigative, well-funded, print) journalism to expose corruption and act in the public interest, and it is more concerned with the real work of reporting than just about any major Hollywood film since the Woodward and Bernstein flick.

That's hard to do. "Print journalism is exponentially more difficult to translate from Page A1 to 16 millimeter," Nandini Balial notes in Literary Hub this week. "Screenwriters must take whole series of articles and the work it took to publish them, capture the humor and effort, the risks and newsroom battles, and make the public, including those who don't read the paper, want to buy a ticket." Newspaper offices aren't very sexy, and much of what constitutes reporting takes place at a cubicle with a phone and (in this era) a Wi-Fi connection. Spotlight inspires and entertains despite drab settings and understated direction. Ex-Globe editor Marty Baron himself (played by Schreiber) admits he didn't expect the film would be made at all, for fairly obvious reasons: risk of offending Catholics, lack of action and special effects, the difficulty of depicting child sexual abuse.

Plus, reporters are widely loathed and distrusted, which helps explain why they're depicted in the context of scandal (Shattered Glass) and sexual liasons with sources (Top Five, Trainwreck) or as ruthless creeps (Nightcrawler) and shameless gossip hounds (Rita Skeeter in Harry Potter). There's no sex in Spotlight—only abuse.

Spotlight manages the seemingly impossible task of wooing journalists with authenticity—Baron calls it "stunningly accurate in how it portrays the practice of journalism"—while still elevating reporters to hero status, as they battle a formidable and corrupt institution with righteous determination. Robert Redford and Carl Bernstein similarly portrayed Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in 1976. (The movie's then-competitor, Network, is much more about the sleazy business imperatives of media than reporting itself.) And Spotlight, like its Washington Post counterpart, provokes nostalgia among journalists for an era when regional newspapers carried more power and prestige. (Spotlight takes place in 2001 and early 2002, when digital media was in its infancy. In this industry, a 14- to 15-year gap feels like a century.)

If and when it loses Best Picture (if not to The Revenant, perhaps to The Big Short), Spotlight is up for plenty of other awards it could nab, including Best Director and Best Supporting Actress (McAdams). And it has already managed to attract a substantial audience, a rare feat for journalism movies. What could have been a small-scale movie is already inspiring a generation of would-be reporters not yet born when Woodward and Bernstein won the Pulitzer Prize. That's bigger than a bear attack.