Tom McCarthy's newspaper drama Spotlight depicts a team of hard-working reporters who find a promising story, follow up on every lead, check and double-check all of their facts, work hard to get even the smallest of details right and wait until they have a fully-formed picture of the story before publishing anything. The film is set in 2001, but such an approach to journalism seems almost quaint in 2015. Now, an endless horde of media outlets rush to be first to the finish line, blurting out whatever they know as quickly as possible and (maybe) cleaning up the mess later. To put it in modern terms: Spotlight demonstrates what good journalism is... and why it matters.
Much of the film unfolds within the offices of the Boston Globe, Boston's most distinguished newspaper. The paper's investigative unit is called Spotlight, and it doesn't operate the same way as the rest of the paper. They're permitted to pick their own stories, and they often spend weeks or even months investigating those stories before reporting on them. This requires a certain amount of secrecy, of course: they report to assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery, Mad Men), but no one else knows what they're working on until they're ready to publish something. The team is headed by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, Birdman), who has three dedicated reporters under his supervision: Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, The Avengers), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams, True Detective) and Matt Carol (Brian d'Arcy James, Smash).
The Globe is in the middle of a transition, as a Floridian named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, Ray Donovan) has been brought in as the new editor-in-chief. Initiallly, everyone is a little hesitant about being led by an out-of-towner who doesn't really know the city, but Marty quickly proves to be a thoughtful, intelligent man with high journalistic standards. Still, he ruffles a few feathers when he gently requests that the Spotlight team drop whatever they're working on and pursue a story that has largely been neglected: sexual abuse allegations against a priest that may have been covered up by Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou, Blue Bloods), the archdiocese of Boston.
The story of abuse within the Catholic Church – which ends up being far more widespread than the members of the Spotlight team initially expected – is a horrifying one, and the film handles it with precisely the right combination of sensitivity and blunt honesty. There are heartbreaking testimonials about the way priests would take advantage of the young boys placed under their supervision. Not only were these innocent kids raped, they were raped by people who claimed to represent God. The victims at the center of the investigation are all adults now, and the best-case-scenarios merely involve severe mental trauma and some form of addiction. “They're the lucky ones,” sympathetic attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, The Terminal) says. “At least they're still alive.” The story does a number on the reporters, too: every member of the Spotlight team is a lapsed Catholic, but listening to these testimonies day after day suffocates whatever was left of their faith.
Everyone involved with the story knows that this isn't going to be easy to report. The Catholic Church is an incredibly powerful institution, and Boston is a city largely populated by Catholics (someone notes that 53% of the Globe's readers are Catholic). This also isn't going to be an easy story to crack, as the church has a great deal of legal power and has successfully managed to keep the most important pieces of evidence locked away. Getting the story right is going to take a great deal of persistence.
It would be easy to overdramatize this material, but one of Spotlight's great virtues is that it almost never indulges the sort of Big Movie Moments that define many movies like this: there are no cries of “stop the presses!” and no melodramatic confrontations between the journalists and their interviewees. There's one angry, righteous, trailer-friendly speech, but within the context of the film it's treated as a sincere-but-irrational moment of passion. Rather than turning these characters into Aaron Sorkin heroes, the film lets their patience, honesty and diligence speak for itself. Some have criticized McCarthy's direction as too plain and simple, but his work here is precisely what this movie demands. It's simple, direct and effective, lacking any fancy camerawork or distracting visual gimmickry. Like a great front page article, it tells an important story in a detailed, intelligent and thoughtful manner without allowing “personality” into the mix. It's often reminiscent of top-tier Sidney Lumet. This is not a movie that needs an elaborate six-minute tracking shot.
Spotlight is also one of the year's finest acting showcases; a true ensemble film in which nobody showboats and everybody gets a chance to shine. Keaton is a even-keeled figure with an acerbic wit and active eyes – he always seems to be in the middle of analyzing something. Ruffalo once again uses very specific body language to define his character – Michael is one of the slouchiest men in the history of film, though in a manner that suggests attentiveness rather than laziness. McAdams plays the best listener of the bunch, always finding precisely the right moment to offer a sympathetic nod or affirmative murmur without interrupting the person she's speaking to. Her performance reminds us that an ability to ask tough questions isn't the only quality required of a good journalist. Schreiber is endlessly fascinating as Marty, contradicting the Perry White/J. Jonah Jameson editor-in-chief stereotype by playing a remarkably understated authority figure. He never barks orders, and he never issues threats. He suggests, he nudges, he calmly urges, and the respect he demonstrates for his journalists inspires a high level of trust.
These are the big performances, but even the bit players are tremendous. Billy Crudup (Almost Famous) has a pair of great scenes as a lawyer who specializes in making the church's problems go away, and Jamey Sheridan (Homeland) is excellent as another attorney who may be too proud to do the right thing. Len Cariou has a tremendous scene as the corrupt Cardinal Law, piously reminding Robby of his days as a civil rights warrior. There's a guilty priest (Richard O'Rourke, 27 Dresses) who appears for less than sixty seconds, but still manages to create a chilling, fully-formed character.
Spotlight is a good Boston movie, capturing the geography and vibe of the city without leaning too heavily on exaggerated accents (sure, Keaton says “Spawhtlight” now and then, but he doesn't force it). It's a good newspaper movie, capturing the tense busyness and prickly camaraderie of the newsroom. It's a good religion movie, offering a sobering reminder that no religious institution is immune to man's wickedness, but that many of them are powerful enough to sweep that wickedness under the rug. It's a good meditation on the importance of in-depth journalism, demonstrating precisely what we are losing as we shut down costly, elaborate investigative reporting and replace it with rushed-to-publication clickbait. In its consistent goodness, Spotlight achieves a kind of greatness. “Keep doing the work that you do,” Garabedian tells Michael. Amen.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 128 minutes
Release Year: 2015