People are calling Spotlight a journalism drama, but you’ve probably seen too many movies about journalists that are adulatory or wildly inaccurate or just plain bad. So I’m calling Spotlight a detective movie in which journalists happen to be doing the detective work. Whatever you choose to call it, this unflashy but superb film about what a free press contributes to a civil society expands into Tarrant County this week.
The film takes its name from the four-person unit inside the Boston Globe set up to pursue long-form journalism — the sort of stories that take months to adequately report — free from the deadline pressures of a daily newspaper. In July 2001, the paper’s new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes in from Miami and, instead of ordering job cuts like he’s expected to, directs Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) to follow up on a single pedophile Catholic priest who seems to be a repeat offender. The more digging done by Robby and his reporters Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James), the more evidence they find of the Catholic Church actively shielding such predators from the law and paying minuscule sums of money to make the victims shut up and go away.
I haven’t been the biggest fan of director/co-writer Tom McCarthy, who previously directed The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win, small slice-of-life dramedies that pleased people other than me. His previous film, The Cobbler, was a miserable attempt at magical realism. However, here he scales up to a wide-ranging ensemble piece and gives it the unstoppable momentum of a boulder bounding down a steep hill. Eschewing directorial flourishes as always, he works to show us how the different members of the team attack this huge story, from Mike’s focus on tracking down incriminating documents to Marty’s eye on the big picture, not to mention the editors’ doing their best to keep the church’s institutional pressure from affecting the individual reporters. Much like in The Martian, the heroism here is collective rather than one person’s, and the actors deliver low-key performances in line with the film’s spirit. (Their accents are also nicely toned down. It’s refreshing to see a Boston movie where nobody seems like they’re about to say, “Wicked pissah!”) Tellingly, one of the movie’s few false notes is Mike’s outburst about the church’s culpability, the scene seeming too out of place and Oscar-clippy.
The insularity of Catholic Boston is well-evoked, with Marty being subtly slighted on various occasions as a Jew and a non-New Englander, and the malignant power of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) looms ominously in the background. Against this backdrop, we get harrowing interviews with victims of abuse (Brian Chamberlain and Michael Cyril Creighton), a surreal conversation between Sacha and an old ex-priest (Richard O’Rourke) who cheerfully admits to molestation, and Matt’s unsettling discovery that a treatment center for child-abusing priests is located about a block from his own home, where he lives with his kids. The interlude when the 9/11 terrorist attacks force all the reporters to drop the story for several weeks is dexterously worked in, too.
I could have used sharper characterization like Michael Mann puts into similar films like Heat and The Insider. Mike’s wife and Matt’s kids are referred to but not seen at all. We get some sharp supporting turns from Stanley Tucci as an irascible victims’ lawyer, Paul Guilfoyle as an oily fixer, Neal Huff as a jittery victims’ rights organizer, and Jamey Sheridan as a friend of Robby who’s knee-deep in the scandal, but no such shading in the key roles. Like All the President’s Men, this movie ends too abruptly with the breaking of the big story — we’d like to see something of the fallout.
One could read Spotlight as a tribute from one fading, prestigious art form to another: a middlebrow drama that relies on craftsmanship instead of CGI effects saluting long-form print journalism in the days before anyone invented the word “clickbait.” Yet the movie doesn’t play like an elegy. It’s too busy getting down with the reporters as they keep their noses to the grindstone and try to make their story as comprehensive and watertight as possible. The Globe reporters don’t set out to be heroes, but by diligently and conscientiously doing the jobs they’ve been trained to do, they expose a whole world of corruption and evil and send it fleeing. Such humble virtues too often get overlooked in Hollywood movies, but they shine brightly in this story.
Starring Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Michael Keaton. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Rated R.[/box_info]