In the short time since I have seen Spotlight, I have seen the shallowness that passes for journalism today. After the recent mass shooting in San Bernadino, CA, the landlord of the shooters let the news media into the residence of the couple that perpetrated the crime after local authorities had been through the building. The reporters and their cameramen poured into the house and proceeded to fight one another to paw all over the place to look at everything and anything inside the house. It was sensationalism at its worst and a low point in the continued downward spiral of the 24/7 news cycle. It was the worst of what journalism is. Spotlight, thankfully, is a shining example what journalism can be and what it can achieve.
The film is set in Boston in 2001. The Boston Globe, the premiere local newspaper, has recently been bought by The New York Times and they are getting a new, out-of-town chief editor from Miami, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber). Baron’s arrival has a few people on edge (this was right around the time print journalism started to be noticeably impacted by the internet), including the Spotlight investigative journalist team, headed by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Baron puts the Spotlight crew onto following up on a piece written about the Father Geoghan child molestation trial and whether the Catholic Church knew anything about it, based on the reporting that Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer representing victims in the case, claimed that Cardinal Bernard Law, the archbishop, knew about it and covered it up. Robby’s team, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sascha Pfieffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) begin to look into things, talking with attorneys on both sides from previous cases, like Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) and Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) as well as older alleged victims as their investigation slowly uncovers a widespread history of abuse and cover up in the Catholic Church in Massachusetts.
Director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) creates an unglamorous look at investigative journalism, and it is unglamorous in the best way. It shows the heavy lifting, the leg work, the nitty-gritty of investigative journalism. You feel the long hours these people are putting in and also the weight of the subject matter. In a way, it feels like they are putting together a massive jigsaw puzzle, and they start out not knowing if it is a 1,000 piece puzzle or a 10,000 piece puzzle. They are not even sure where the borders for this story are, as it seems even new kernel of information they uncover only increases the scope of their story. It’s helpful, I think, that McCarthy found himself in the last season of HBO’s The Wire, a show itself that was constantly expanding, with the season McCarthy was involved with focusing on the newspaper industry of Baltimore.
The story is expertly balances the pressure of the investigation itself, how tied to the community the Catholic Church is in the city, and the weight of the potential implications of what they are uncovering in their investigation. There is a noticeable temptation several times throughout the film by Robby’s team to want to publish what they have found, thinking they have a smoking gun and afraid they will get scooped by the Boston Herald, but Robby, Marty, and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the editor who Robby answers to directly, keep the team focused on following the story and getting the system and not the people. They cast a vision and set a high journalistic mark and refuse to settle for a lesser or incomplete story.
A lot of times journalists can make for easy targets in TV and film. They are either bumbling or short-sighted, or naïve. If they are championing a social justice cause they can come across as one-note and insufferable (Sarah Sokolovic’s Laura Sutton on the latest season of Homeland comes to mind). On the flip side, they can be glamorized and turned into heroes for championing a cause. Here McCarthy and his actors are note perfect. There is no grand speechifying or crusading. The closest thing is a moment between Keaton and Ruffalo where Ruffalo’s Bezeredes wants to nail these people to the wall with what they got while Keaton’s Robby insists on keeping at the bigger picture. Ruffalo’s rant comes across as passionate and genuine because he is stubborn, determined, and persistent. In lesser hands it could probably look like someone gunning for an Oscar nomination.
It’s an ensemble drama and all of the performances are terrific. All of the central characters are given equal importance and beats to carry and different ways to shine throughout the film, McAdams is most shown meeting and empathizing with the victims, Ruffalo is most on the go, and d’Arcy James is the researcher who uncovers a key clue in figuring out how the Church covered it all up when so much of what they do is public record. Keaton is the glue that holds it all together. He’s an actor who has always been able to go big, as evidenced by his Oscar nominated performance in last year’s Birdman, but his performance here is subdued and requires him to be a steady force for his team but also to apply pressure to people he is talking to in order to get to the truth. Tucci excels in a smaller role as an eccentric but shrewd lawyer. All of the performances here are praiseworthy.
What elevates Spotlight and distinguishes it from similar but lesser films is it doesn’t just highlight exposing the corruption and the cover-up and the abuse and how traumatic it was to the victims (though it does a very good job of that too). It shows how it was an abuse of power on multiple levels. There was the actual sexual abuse that occurred. There was the abuse of power from being in a position of authority in people lives and using that to perpetrate these vile offenses. There’s also the spiritual abuse of power, because of the damaged it does to the relationship that people have the Church, and to God through the Church. Bezeredes, after his outburst, has a telling conversation with Pfieffer where he says that even though he stopped going to church a long time ago, he always thought he’d come back to it when he was older. That is gone for him now.
Spotlight tells an honest, straightforward story that is respectful of the victims of a difficult subject and properly shows how these people shined a light on a terrible situation. It handles everything with the right amount of proportion too. It points out that it wasn’t just the Catholic Church and Cardinal Law and these priests who were at fault. A lot of people in the positions of authority in the city turned a blind eye for a long time and refused to admit that there was a problem. Even the newspaper and the journalists involved are not without blame. It makes everyone involved accountable on some level.
There is no hero worship or lionizing involved in this film, even though what they do is worthy of recognition. It is worthy of recognition because they do not seek out the recognition but do the hard work because it is their job and on some level it’s an obligation to the city and people they grew up around. While so much on TV and online today shows us how the news media today caters to the lowest common denominator, Spotlight shows journalism at its best, and without drawing attention to itself. It deserves to be right up there with All The President’s Men and will almost certainly be in the discussion for Best Picture at the Oscars.
Rating 4 1/2 out of 5 stars