Spotlight, the movie dramatizing the discovery and reporting of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning team of journalists from the Boston Globe of the abuse of children and subsequent cover-ups by priests in the Archdiocese of Boston, has grossed $16.3 million to date and has received a 98% score on Rotten Tomatoes, but not all feedback concerning it has been good. After watching the movie at the Loews Theater, Jack Dunn—long-time Board of Trustees member of BC High School and spokesman for Boston College—stepped onto the sidewalk and threw up.
Dunn expressed great disapproval of the way he was portrayed in the movie. “The things they have me saying in the movie, I never said,” he said for the Globe. The issue revolves around one particular scene in the movie where Walter Robinson and Sacha Pfeiffer meet with then-president William Kezema, Dunn, and a fictional character named Pete Conley regarding how much and when they knew about cases of abuse at BC High. In the movie, Dunn is portrayed as saying, “It’s a big school, Robbie, you know that, and we’re talking about seven alleged victims over, what, eight years?” Dunn vehemently opposes that this correctly reflects his personality or his reaction regarding the abuse crisis. Even more puzzling is why the line was not put in the mouth of Conley, the fictional influential businessman who acts as a power broker for the Archdiocese.
Dunn’s actions in real life are quite different. He reported to the Globe that he “proposed to the board that [they] 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.” This is supported by the Board of Trustees officers of BC High, who issued a statement to alumni on November 16.
On November 18, an attorney acting on behalf of Mr. Dunn issued a letter to the Spotlight filmmakers calling the portrayal “defamatory.” The letter demands that the scene be removed. In a response on November 24, however, the filmmakers issued a response saying that they “respectfully, but vigorously” disagreed. “The portrayal of Mr. Dunn, which amounts to a few lines in one scene of a two-hour, eight-minute movie does not support this implication. And the implication that actually arises — that Dunn is a trained public-relations professional who cares deeply about the reputation of BC High — is not actionable,” the response read. It argues that the point of the scene was not to defame Dunn, but rather to portray him as a trained public relations professional who was concerned about the reputation of BC High.
On November 25, Walter Robinson—himself a BC High alum—mentioned that the scene seems accurate to him as far as he remembers. Pfeiffer vetted his recollections.
Another person that may have a bone to pick with the filmmakers is Steve Kurkjian, who is portrayed in the movie as being dismissive of the importance of the story, while in truth he did some of the most important reporting and was part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize.
Ultimately, the “based on a true story” tag gives film professionals the freedom to add and subtract details as needed for what they believe will make for a more compelling story. Of course, when the story includes real individuals, care should be exercised concerning the position that said additions and subtractions puts those people in. Dunn reported that he was particularly hurt by the fact that his son, a current student at BC High, felt the need to defend his father before his class went to watch the movie.