“Spotlight” Makers Munch a Little Crow

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Posted in: Injury Law

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 in 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 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” at its release last November, he came out of the theatre 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 the film that had already been released nationally.

“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,” 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 Academy Award 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 Pictures 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 that I know have 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 a 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 state 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 9-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 filing a lawsuit, 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, 2016, 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 Studios (the apparent deep pocket) agreed to make “donations to local charities” in Dunn’s names. 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 & 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.

  • ingeborg oppenheimer

    this write-up should be shared not only with the legal community, but with the public at large. there should be criminal sanctions for the deliberate falsification of facts about individuals in films to enhance dramatic impact; it should not be simply a civil matter. assuming that john dean’s facts are stated, the makers of the film “spotlight” essentially committed character assassination of more than one individual. the film’s basic themes, the sexual abuse of children by church clergy and the attempted cover-up by the church, need no such added drama to make their point. and even if added drama were needed, this is not the way to produce it.

    • HeilMary1

      The screenwriters simply should have shown their script to the people before shooting, or given them fictional names.

      • ingeborg oppenheimer

        or, heilmary1, they should simply have stuck to the truth about people mentioned in their script.

  • Victor Grunden

    As a history buff it is very annoying to encounter someone who has watched a Hollywood docudrama that has key facts wrong. It is next to impossible to convince them of the factual account. Movie goers are usually not prone to detailed research. Add in the visual and audio impression delivered by actors speech and mannerism enhanced by theme music in an environment with buttered popcorn aroma, a pleasing smell invoking pleasant memories to most people, and all the disclaimers in the world will have no real effect. It is good that someone got some redress. It would be better if the term “based on a true story” was banned altogether. It doesn’t mean their version is true and thus the wiggle room. Private persons at one time had to sign a release for anyone to use their name in public entertainment. Perhaps they should be more cautious in signing releases.

    • Joe Paulson

      People need to realize historical films are going to change things or make some stuff up for dramatic license purposes and take that into consideration. As to the last point, I take the people here generally are public figures and don’t think people generally in cases like this should have a veto each time a film portrays the events.

      • Victor Grunden

        I agree they need to realize the poetic license but they don’t. That’s the problem. Public versus private gets into a legal definition. That’s why film makers get a release from individuals they wish to portray. And it’s one-sided in favor of the film maker. News clips, if not copyrighted, from public venues such as courts can be used but that often doesn’t fit with the plot not to mention the actor/actress portrayal.

        • Joe Paulson

          I agree as to the first part. As to the last part, I think there is a 1A right to portray public events like this and don’t think a release should be necessary as a general matter. What the exact rules are or were, I don’t know, but if let’s say a t.v. movie is done on a same sex marriage case, needing to get a release to portray one of the litigants is off to me.

    • HeilMary1

      It’s too bad that Dunn simply wasn’t given a fictional name by the screenwriters or shown the script before filming and allowed to request changes, and I don’t even remember his character in the movie. I read about his complaint before seeing the movie, but I missed whatever portrayal he was complaining about. I will buy the DVD and look for him again.

      • Victor Grunden

        The only movies I watch are the old classics that were pure fiction and for relaxation and entertainment. Also the old WWII propaganda movies with Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and others made while being in the military filming unit are interesting but again the purpose was known. That was their actual military assignment as officers in different branches. When movies started carry social messages and had to twist facts to accomplish their goal they were no longer entertaining. But in the case of the Catholic church there were many otherwise very good people that for some reason participated in the cover up by allowing priests to be sent to retreats, settling quietly with the families and not reporting it to the police. As you say, it should have been written as fiction with fictional names and everyone that follows child abuse and likely to see such movie would understand. It’s almost like it’s payback for Dunn being part of the group outing people and ending the cover-ups.

        • Joe Paulson

          Movies carried social messages and portrayed historical events often by twisting the facts by making it rank propaganda from the early days. An infamous case was Birth of an Nation in the 1910s.

          The small players (specific priests or such) might have been fictionalized here but part of story includes major players (& who they supposed to be will be obvious, so fictional names will not solve the problem — we knew who the lead fictional names in “Inherit the Wind” portrayed). Also, this was based on an actual media team’s efforts. it’s kind like wanting “All the President’s Men” or something to be fully fictionalized.

          • Victor Grunden

            I believe D.W. Griffith was financed by the Klan who at that time paraded in Washington, D.C. and state capitols and many politicians were proud to be Klansman. It was a time of eugenics, Ugly laws and only Caucasians could be made American citizens. There was a court case circa 1921 whereby an Asian Indian sought classification as Caucasian. War propaganda movies demonized the enemy and newsreels showed mostly good news from the battlefront. But, there are good murder mysteries, harmless sci-fi, not slasher horror movies, and best of all comedies for pure fun. All the President’s Men was a case in point about the damage a story based on facts can do. Seven Days in May was fictional but much more entertaining. Yet few people know that it almost happened in 1934 by NAZI sympathizers at the highest levels of business and government. If a person was not around and interested during Watergate in the era of Vietnam, civil rights, Arab-Israeli conflict, Castro and Che Guevara and the black militant movement all preceded by a the assassination of a popular, controversial President, All the President’s Men will leave a very distorted perception of events. This is enabled by the use of real names and events often not in the proper order. It was CREEP, the Committee to Re-elect the President that started the whole event. While Watergate was a bag of dirty political tricks and totally unnecessary because Nixon was going to be re-elected in 1972. Professional government burglars with the capability of breaking in and never leaving a sign taped a door open. The security guard missed it the first time so they put more tape on so he would see it the second time. Why? A much worse thing happened in 1972 was when Nixon and Kissinger cajoled the South Vietnamese into accepting a peace treaty that required the removal of foreign troops similar to the 1954 agreement with the French as the French abandoned all of Indo-China except S. Vietnam, the last domino to fall in Indochina. Yet in the midst of that an FBI agent in a time of war went outside channels to the Press when Communists and the terrorist organizations they backed around the world were emboldened and on the move. Nixon had made a commitment to S. Vietnam that if the treaty was not honored, he would re-engage. The Press I understand. Deep Throat’s action I don’t. And all this can’t be addressed properly in a 90 minute movie. Add in dramatic or poetic license and there are a lot of misinformed people.

          • Joe Paulson

            You said “when movies started” to do things … they “started” to do those things when we had silents. You like to watch “classic films,” but it cannot be because the issues we have at hand here did not exist. In fact, historical events, including relatively recent matters, were portrayed, rather imperfectly, even before we had films — plays and other works did the trick there. The core issue here is not new. Your long reply doesn’t change this & if anything reaffirms it. And, yes, “All the President’s Men” distorted events in certain cases — in fact, selectively reporting does that too, so when you add in dramatic license, it is going to happen. But, film is going to portray such major events & even with fictional names, we are going to know who really is being portrayed when major players are involved. So, the ultimate problem will remain.

            Suggested reading: Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies

          • Victor Grunden

            In the late “60s the “heavy” movies started and their entertainment value tanked so when a historical event is portrayed it is more about entertainment than factual reporting. Even reporting has suffered. But, the explosion in movie goers and TV viewers created the situation where many confused fiction with fact. While they may forget something they read in a detailed analysis fifteen seconds after they read it, the sensory stimulation causes the flawed version to remain in their memory almost forever. There was a time Americans were less educated but a lot smarter. If someone said they seen it in a movie the usual reply was, “That’s not real”. Today more often than not, it’s, “I know what happened because I seen it in a movie”. That’s the rub. Contrasting Seven Days in May with fictionalized names and events with All The Presidents Men with actual names and events was to illustrate neither did justice to the events due to the limited time to tell the story causing key events to be left out. Seven Days in May was jut entertainment to most people. All the Presidents Men gave people the felling they know what went on in Watergate. In one of Nixon’s tapes he is heard saying this wasn’t about him but about The Plan and it must be saved. Yet that statement or The Plan is never mentioned and few people care. Making people believe they have the whole story when they don’t is lying by omission. In the “Spotlight” case it was a combination of misrepresentations demonstrating how bad things have become. It is good to see some pushback but it won’t alter the minds of mush opinions. And a lot of people will be making choices based on fantasy rather than fiction.

  • Frank Willa

    In my view, the victims of the abuse and dishonesty of clergy are now the victims of dishonest movie. How could a film maker not tell the truth in a movie about not telling the truth?

    • HeilMary1

      Movies and history books are never perfect.

      • Frank Willa

        Trying your best to get it right and missing the mark is one thing. Making something up is another.

        It was and is about the victims.

  • PetrusRomanus1

    Jack Dunn appears now to be claiming that he knew all along what His Eminence the now Dethroned Cardinal Archbishop of Boston was up to with his pedophile clergy ever since he was installed on his Throne on a March day thirty one years ago.

    No sale, Jack. You were clueless, and being clueless, you played right into B Law’s nasty scheme. The Team got it right, and so did the Movie. You and your lawyers don’t, and won’t. Shame on you!

    • HeilMary1

      It’s also human nature for employees and representatives of institutions to not want to believe their employers are harming the public.

  • I am unable to evaluate the facts here. I doubt it is a “He said she said” situation, but the evidence presented here is not sufficient. Even if I had absolute trust in John Dean (and I do have high regard for him), it still seems too much like hearsay. However, what would have helped me form a clearer assessment would have been some kind of explanation for why the movie distorted the situation. If the motivation was something like dramatic convenience, then it is pretty horrendous. However, if the underlying reality is that some of the guilty parties were attempting to deflect the blame onto an innocent person, then it’s still pretty bad, but overall a quite different situation. In the second case, it’s more like a failure to investigate the reality (and any such investigation would have had to begin with the accused person), while the first situation might be something sordid like “This story line can combine three scenes into one and save a few bucks during production.”

  • Ed

    This is a case where restorative justice might have worked better than our standard legal system.