How Oscar-winning 'Spotlight' Wrongly Shone the Blame

Bishop Sean O'Malley blesses the altar with incense during his installation ceremonies as the new archbishop of Boston at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston on July 30, 2003. O'Malley replaces Cardinal Bernard Law, who resigned in December 2002 over the clergy child sexual abuse scandal in the Boston Archdiocese, the subject of the Oscar-winning movie "Spotlight." The author suggests that Hollywood filmmakers are notorious for failing to get history correct. More often than not, the true story gets twisted for dramatic purposes. Jim Bourg/reuters

This article first appeared on the Justia site.

No Academy Award was more surprising this year than that for best picture, which went to the film Spotlight, the dramatized account of the investigative team at The Boston Globe uncovering sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston school system.

The award was surprising because it has been known since the film's release that the story defamed (merely for dramatic purposes) one of those involved in uncovering sexual abuse by the clergy, not to mention that the film has distorted the roles of others as well.

When Jack Dunn, the director of public affairs at Boston College, went to see Spotlight last November, he came out of the theater to vomit—his reaction to the way he had been falsely portrayed. He hired a lawyer. But there was little they could do to prevent further damage by a film that had already been released nationally.

"We spent enormous time researching in depth what happened in Boston—interviewing individuals, reviewing emails, poring over court documents. The movie is based on real events and uses, by necessity, scenes and dialogue to introduce characters, provide context and articulate broad themes. That is true of every movie ever made about historical events," Tom McCarthy, the film's co-writer and director, explained to Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen.

According to Cullen, Dunn was not alone in being falsely depicted; legendary Globe reporter Steve Kurkjian is portrayed in the film as a curmudgeon dismissive of the sex abuse story, which was flat-out untrue. In fact, Kurkjian had been a key member of the team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for the Globe by exposing the cover-up.

In addition, other reports reveal that former Globe publisher Richard Gilman and a sex abuse victim's attorney, Eric MacLeish, also were falsely represented in the film. Cullen called for apologies, but all anyone got was a slap in the face from the Academy Awards. Spotlight received six nominations and was awarded best original screenplay and best picture.

Over the years, I have known a number of members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences—there are some 6,000 of them, and it is difficult to live in West Los Angeles without knowing a few—but all whom I know have a strong aversion to awarding pictures that get history wrong.

Those I know have rejected more pictures than they wish the case for twisting facts for dramatic gain, and they get particularly annoyed at filmmakers who exploit and distort the claim "This film is based on a true story," as did Spotlight.

While I would never ask those I know how they voted, nor would they likely tell me, I know they are fact checkers, so I am confident they did not award Spotlight anything. But few members of the Academy do anything more than try to watch as many of the films as they can, and seldom is there time to watch them all, let alone fact-check, which can be very difficult to do.

Hollywood filmmakers are notorious for failing to get history correct. More often than not, the true story gets twisted for dramatic purposes. Indeed, there are hundreds upon hundreds of articles and books and reviews about cinematic distortions of fact, reports of endless uses and abuses of real events to give audiences the false belief that they are witnessing reality.

For this reason alone, the Academy should have a fact-checking operation that can advise all members, if not the public, on a film's authenticity when it claims to be based on a true story.

As it happens, the only way to get the attention of filmmakers to seriously focus on verisimilitude and force them to address erroneous accounts is to hire an attorney who understands defamation and false-light law, which usually only happens after the fact. Jack Dunn did exactly that: threatened litigation and prepared to pursue it if necessary.

Boston media blogger (and professional journalist when he is not a journalism professor) Dan Kennedy obtained, posted and reported on letters from Dunn's attorneys and the response from the lawyer for the film's makers.

Dunn's attorneys, David H. Rich and Howard M. Cooper of the Boston firm Todd & Weld, sent a 14-page letter with 21 pages of exhibits to the writers, director and distributor of Spotlight claiming "defamation" through the "false, malicious and fabricated portrayal" of their client. While Dunn is merely the focus in one scene, they described the film they (and undoubtedly many others) saw:

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.

This letter contains detailed descriptions of the false and defamatory material, along with the true situations, and it explains how the film's director/writer met with Jack Dunn for a tour of the Boston home of the cardinal of the diocese where the abuses had occurred, but never mentioned a word to Dunn that he would be included in the film, nor was Dunn asked any questions about his role.

Finally, the letter demanded the filmmakers "take immediate action to prevent any further harm to" Dunn and his reputation by removing the offending scenes from the movie and "publicly stat[ing] that the scenes were fabricated and that the dialogue was false and contrived for dramatic effect."

Six days later, an attorney for the filmmakers, Alonzo Wickers IV of the Los Angeles office of Davis Wright Tremaine LLP, responded with a nine-page letter with 29 pages of exhibits claiming the portrayal of Dunn was "substantially true"—along with suggestions of how they might further smear Dunn should he litigate because the filmmakers were not going to change anything.

Exactly what happened next is not clear, nor really important, because in the end a settlement was reached without a lawsuit being filed, albeit after the Academy Awards. The filmmakers did what they really dislike doing: eating crow by admitting that they were wrong!

I suspect, however, that the only people who will ever know this fact are those looking to see how this matter was resolved, for there will be no permanent asterisk attached to the Academy's best picture for 2015 indicating that the film smeared Jack Dunn with fabricated dialogue.

Only because I had made a mental note to find out what had happened to Jack Dunn's effort to deal with the gratuitous attack on his reputation did I learn of his vindication, which occurred the very day I began looking.

On March 16, the makers of Spotlight conceded that "the dialogue attributed to [Dunn] in the movie was fabricated and misrepresents what he did and said" at the time shown by the film. They acknowledged that Dunn "was not part of the Archdiocesan cover-up." Rather, they stated it was clear from his efforts on behalf of the sex abuse victims that he had been deeply concerned.

As part of the settlement, Open Road Films (the apparent deep pocket) agreed to make "donations to local charities" in Dunn's name. Other terms of the settlement, if any, are not mentioned. No one other than Dunn was acknowledged as being falsely portrayed.

If Jack Dunn was not Boston College's news and public affairs director, it is doubtful he would have gotten any coverage of his vindication whatsoever. But this passing vindication will never begin to keep pace with the smear of the film, particularly since it was the best picture of 2015 and still contains the offending scene, so it will be assumed an accurate portrayal by those who see it.

As they say, that's show business.

John Dean, a Justia columnist, is a former counsel to President Richard Nixon.

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