Note: This review was originally published in October 2015.
At a moment when print journalism finds itself dangerously close to extinction, Spotlight is a film that reminds its viewers of what a valuable and vital enterprise it can be. Director Tom McCarthy ventures away from the small, character-driven films that have defined his filmography to deliver a story that’s All the President’s Men by way of Mystic River. Anchoring the affair is a stunning cast lead by Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo as one half of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team, responsible in 2002 for a series of groundbreaking articles that exposed the Catholic Church’s involvement in protecting priests accused of molesting children.
Given the subject matter, it would be hard to begrudge Spotlight for being a morbidly depressing affair, but McCarthy and his co-writer, Josh Singer, make the salient choice to eschew focusing directly on the pain of victims and instead examine the ethics and challenges of breaking a major news story that will shatter a community. That community of course is Boston, a popular home for films as of late and, in some cases, a crutch for character development. While many movies introduce their leads as Boston stoics and ask the audience to fill in the blanks, Spotlight embraces the city as its setting without allowing it to overshadow the true story. Characters like Keaton’s Walter “Robby” Robinson and Stanley Tucci’s Mitchell Garabedian are rooted in Boston but not beholden to it.
Keaton in particular is excellent as he captures the dogged determination of Robinson, the editor in charge of the “Spotlight” team. Following his manic, surreal work in Birdman, Keaton is far more reserved but no less dynamic as he struggles to rectify the Globe’s past mistakes in ignoring reports of clergy abuse by demanding more and more of a story that risks being buried at every turn. Ruffalo is also excellent as the emotional Michael Rezendes, a reporter dedicated to exposing the Church and whose personal anguish over the shocking truths behind the story are reflective of the world’s reactions when the truth was finally revealed.
While Spotlight is about priests in the Catholic Church and the heinous acts they committed against young boys and girls alike, there are very few men of the cloth shown on-screen. Rather, we hear of the horrid encounters that irreparably changed numerous lives from the victims themselves, as they cautiously share their stories with Robinson, Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer (played with purpose by Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (a stellar Brian d’Arcy James). In contrast to Black Mass, another recent Boston-centered drama that embraced showing murders point-blank, Spotlight opts to deliver its impact through careful, methodical build-up.
(Read: Are We Nearing the End of the Newspaper Movie?)
Midway through the film, the “Spotlight” team has discovered a correlation between old directories listing the annual parish locations of each priest and the Fathers guilty of molesting children. As Carroll scans a list of names, he abruptly stops, runs out of his house and down several streets, and stops in front of a seemingly normal-looking home. The horror and disgust on his face as he realizes a man guilty of abusing a child lives in his neighborhood is far more powerful than any recreation could ever be. While a gruesome murder or a stark scene of abuse can certainly make for evocative cinema, there is infinitely more to relate to watching Carroll race down the street. It is a moment any one could experience, and that empathy is a guiding force in Spotlight.
Even with the dark subject matter that is the substance of the “Spotlight” team’s work, this is a film about newspaper journalism. There are cubicles and filing cabinets a plenty, and composer Howard Shore affords montages of basement research the same tense opulence he displayed in his scores for more epic adventure films. As Robinson and his team finally begin to see their story congeal — what were originally 13 priests in Boston is discovered to be at least 87, with new victims and evidence emerging — the context of the film’s setting comes crashing down. It is fall 2001, and September 11th forces the “Spotlight” reporters to temporarily abandon their expose on the Church. With the intense focus on the reporting at hand, the 9/11 attacks come as a shock to the viewer as well. It is a testament to McCarthy’s riveting storytelling that despite numerous reminders that the film is occurring over the course of 2001, the September 11th attacks take us as much by surprise as the reporters of the Globe.
The backbone of Spotlight is its impeccable cast. In a film dense with still-action conversations, it’s the chops of talents like John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, and Billy Crudup in supporting roles that carry the story through. Slattery brings his exasperated charm from Mad Men into the role of managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., and Tucci is sensational as the crafty attorney Mitchell Garabedian. Schreiber is Marty Baron, the Globe’s zealous new editor, and Crudup makes the most of his screen time as conflicted lawyer Eric MacLeish, beholden to the Church but ultimately interested in bringing them to justice. While too many names can dilute a production, McCarthy has a worthy role for every name in the cast, bringing importance to each scene and keeping a dialogue-heavy, action-light film crisp and compelling.
Spotlight is the best film yet from McCarthy, a testament to his evolving skills as a director and writer and his eye for the emotional resonance at the core of the stories he tells. Spotlight examines the cost of exposing the truth and asks if that cost can ever be too high. Through succinct subplots, nuanced performances, and a firm script, the question is beautifully and masterfully inspected. What answers it provides are nearly beside the point – like the journalistic craft it celebrates on-screen, Spotlight offers the facts without analysis and trusts us to unpack its difficult aftermath.