When the truth ends up on an editing room floor
“Spotlight,” the movie about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the coverup of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, had its general release on Friday and film critics agree: “Spotlight” is one of the best movies of the year.
Jack Dunn had a different reaction. After seeing the film at the Loews theater across from Boston Common, he stepped onto the sidewalk and threw up.
The movie sickened him because he is portrayed as someone who minimized the suffering of those who were sexually abused, as someone who tried to steer Globe reporters away from the story, as someone invested in the coverup.
“The things they have me saying in the movie, I never said,” Dunn said. “But worse is the way they have me saying those things, like I didn’t care about the victims, that I tried to make the story go away. The dialogue assigned to me is completely fabricated and represents the opposite of who I am and what I did on behalf of victims. It makes me look callous and indifferent.”
Dunn is the longtime spokesman for Boston College, his alma mater. He is also on the board of trustees at Boston College High School, from which he graduated in 1979. In 2002, Walter Robinson, then editor of the Globe’s Spotlight Team, called Dunn to set up a meeting with BC High president Bill Kemeza about allegations against priests who had taught at BC High.
That real-life meeting became a dramatic scene in the movie, in which Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, and Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, played by Rachel McAdams, press Kemeza, Dunn, and a fictional character called Pete Conley about what BC High knew and when they knew it.
Robinson graduated from BC High, and his character expresses incredulity that previous BC High administrators didn’t know about the serial abuse by one Rev. James Talbot.
“It’s a big school, Robbie, you know that,” the Jack Dunn character says. “And we’re talking about seven alleged victims over, what, eight years?”
In real life, Jack Dunn says, not only did he not say this but that after Robinson told him what the Globe had learned about the abuse by priests at BC High, he drew up for the school’s board of trustees a four-point plan to address the allegations with transparency and compassion.
“I proposed to the board that we create a hotline so alums can call in and report anything they know; hire an independent child advocate to review each case; report any criminality to the police; and provide counseling and compensation for the victims. There was input from others, but that essentially became the plan,” Dunn said.
The real-life meeting with Globe reporters, Dunn said, was cordial, not confrontational.
“We said we didn’t know anything, that there were no files,” Dunn said. “But we weren’t denying or minimizing anything.”
There were stories in the Globe at the time chronicling what Kemeza and Dunn said and did in response to the Globe inquiries, and a column praised BC High’s response compared to the foot-dragging and obstruction of the Archdiocese.
But real life usually isn’t dramatic enough for the silver screen. Artistic license means screenwriters and filmmakers can take a scene from real life and make it a composite that serves what they consider a larger truth. In other words, they make stuff up.
The irony, of course, is that “Spotlight” has been widely and rightly praised for the way it captures the minutiae of what newspaper reporters do in pursuit of hard-to-get stories like the clergy abuse scandal. It gets the journalism right. But in doing so, “Spotlight,” like other films that take on real-life stories, engages in something that is anathema to journalism — making up characters and dialogue.
The caveat employed by filmmakers is that most elastic of phrases, “based on a true story.” But in the interest of transparency, that sort of disclaimer should be augmented with the words “but we reserve the right to make stuff up.”
The real problem highlighted in Jack Dunn’s case is that fictional dialogue meant to highlight the obstruction thrown up by Catholic powerbrokers was put into the mouth of a real person, creating real-life consequences.
When I talked to him last week at his office in Chestnut Hill, it was obvious that Dunn was emotionally and physically wrecked by the way he’s portrayed in the film. At one point, he cried, describing how his son, a senior at BC High, felt compelled to stand up and defend him in front of his classmates before they went, as a class, to see the film.
“Part of me didn’t want to say anything about this, because I don’t want to take anything away from the victims,” he said. “The Globe reporters did a great job, and my beef is not with them. But the real heroes in this are the victims, and I know some of them and I care about them. But I can’t just stand by and have my reputation ruined.”
What perplexes Dunn, and me, too, is why the fabricated lines are credited to a real person when there is a fabricated character called Pete Conley in the scene. As a character, Conley is an influential business guy who acts as a fixer for the Archdiocese of Boston.
I asked Tom McCarthy, who directed the film and co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, what he thought of Dunn’s complaint.
“We spent enormous time researching in depth what happened in Boston — interviewing individuals, reviewing e-mails, 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,” McCarthy wrote in an e-mail.
“We understand that not everyone will embrace the way they are portrayed in the film, but we feel confident, based on our extensive research, that the movie captures with a high degree of authenticity the nature of events, personalities, and pressures of the time.”
I asked McCarthy for an interview, and to answer this question specifically: Why make a real person look bad with words he didn’t say, when you could just as easily assign those words to a fictitious person you put in the scene? But his spokeswoman said they would limit their response to the e-mail.
Dunn isn’t the only real person portrayed in the film who has a beef with McCarthy. Steve Kurkjian, a legendary Globe reporter, is portrayed as a curmudgeon who was dismissive of the importance of the story. That couldn’t be further from the truth, and Kurkjian did some of the most important reporting as part of the team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing the coverup.
Kurkjian, a journalistic icon, is owed an apology, at least. So is Dunn, but he’s looking for more. A lot more. His lawyer sent a letter to the filmmakers, demanding that the offending scene be deleted from the movie, just as the movie hit hundreds of screens coast to coast.
But, with lawyers now involved, getting people to do the right thing is going to be that much harder.
Sort of like when all those lawyers were telling Cardinal Law to batten down the hatches and ignore the rabble that wanted answers.
How’d that work out for the cardinal?