Why We Love Movies Full of Paper Like ‘The Report’

What is it about those films that makes files, folders, and legal pads sort of sexy?

Sarah Begley
GEN
Published in
6 min readNov 15, 2019

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“The Report.” Credit: Amazon Studios

TThere is a particular scene in the movie Spotlight that is catnip for journalists, investigators, lawyers, and other research-happy nitpickers. It has to do with paperwork.

All four members of the Boston Globe’s investigative team probing sex abuse in the Catholic Church are bent over piles of church directories, tracing rows of listings with rulers, decoding terms, and circling names of potential pedophile priests with a pen. One by one, names are transferred from the directories to a spreadsheet, checked and double-checked until the team has a list of leads — and evidence of a cover-up. This builds up to Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) realizing that one of the pedophile priests is lodged in a house near his own. He runs to the address, stands shocked, then tapes a photo of the house and its address to his refrigerator to warn his kids to keep away.

This sequence is the pinnacle of what I love about paperwork movies. Whenever I see one, I get a sudden urge to sharpen some pencils and draw up some charts and tables. Whether journalistic (Spotlight, The Post, The Insider, All the President’s Men) or legal (Michael Clayton, Erin Brockovich, The Firm), these are paper procedurals that are just as much about the triumph of justice over evil as any superhero flick. To paraphrase a quote often attributed to Margaret Mead, never doubt the power of a few diligent nerds to take down an entire corrupt empire.

We’re in store for two more paperwork movies this Oscar season. First is The Report, which comes out November 15 and stars Adam Driver as Senate staffer Daniel Jones, who led the investigation into the CIA’s use of torture post-9/11. In real life, his report wound up at nearly 7,000 pages; the movie promises a faithful depiction of this paperwork-heavy tale. In the trailer, an apparent CIA employee tells Jones, “Paper has a way of getting people in trouble at our place.” Jones replies, “At our place, paper’s how we keep track of laws.”

A week later, we’ll get Dark Waters, about a lawyer’s investigation into DuPont exposing a West Virginia community to dangerous chemicals. Like many legal thrillers…

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Sarah Begley
GEN
Writer for

Director at Medium working with authors and books. Formerly a staff writer and editor at Time.