Journalism is one of the noblest professions out there. The collection, development, and circulation of information is a world changing job… When done correctly and without agenda. Recently, through celebrity tabloids, political propaganda, and cat pictures, the notion that journalism is an honorable career has become lost. There was a time, or maybe there were just individuals during a time, where there were good people who used journalism and news to expose indecency and corruption. The pen was truly mightier than the sword when people did wrong and the good journalists of the world brought these wrong doings into the light of the public. Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is about the greatest of these journalists: the Spotlight team from the Boston Globe.
SPOTLIGHT takes place during the year 2001 in Boston, Massachusetts and involves the uncovering of a massive child molestation scandal involving priests of the Catholic Church. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) make up the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe that is investigating these molestations. They are tasked to handle this story by their brand new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and are overseen by the assistant managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). The investigation starts small, but as more and more victims come forward, the story begins to take shape. The Spotlight team comes to realize this isn’t a contained incident, but a systemic problem with the Archdiocese that has occurred more than anyone could have possibly believed.
This is the best movie about journalism in a long time and it manages to convey what being a hard hitting reporter is with clever, but not at all showy, filmmaking. There is an entire montage of the team going through a series of books that have priest’s names in them over the course of several days that is absolutely riveting because of the camera work, the editing, the music, and the performances. This is not a light movie. It is a heavy film that will have you leaving the theater feeling like someone punched you in the gut. That the film can still manage to have lighthearted character moments amidst all the intense drama and serious emotion indicate there is a very skilled screenwriter at work and an equally deft hand behind the camera.
Tom McCarthy, aided by co-screenwriter Josh Singer, has finally found his breakout movie. He has delivered some small, but wonderful, films with THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR, and WIN-WIN (We will not discuss THE COBBLER here). His work on SPOTLIGHT shows that he has the dramatic chops as a filmmaker to go beyond his small, joyous character pieces and craft a massive and immersive drama that holds you by your throat for the entire running time. There is little to no action in this movie, yet he makes every line of dialogue or any sequence where a character is reading a document feel like the biggest action beat in a Marvel movie. I have to imagine a generation of brand-new, idealistic, and morally uncompromising journalists could be born out of watching this movie and seeing how important the profession is to this country and the world as a whole.
The key to unlocking this movie was hiring a capable group of actors who are able to portray the shift from professionals reporting on a story to the guardians of these victims, hurting from not being able to unleash the truth about this story to the public that needs to hear it. They ache from learning about how much wrong has been done to children by members of the institution that they rely on and trust more than anything. The four leads of this ensemble: Ruffalo, Keaton, McAdams, and d’Arcy James, go above and beyond to sell these four individuals as reporters and decent human beings. Keaton does great work as the head of the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson, who understands that this story is a marathon that they need to run and not a quick sprint. McAdams does great, compassionate work as Pfeiffer, who is invested in getting retribution for the victims that she has been connecting with. Brian d’Arcy James is a revelation in this movie and provides the film with several of its lighter moments without betraying the overall serious tone of the picture. Ruffalo is the bleeding heart of the group and does remarkable work as the odd-ball Rezendes, whose arc takes him from nosy reporter to an emotional wreck consumed by needing the world to catch up with what he and his team have learned. What unites these four people during this particular investigation are that they are lapsed Catholics who feel like they, or anyone that they knew, could’ve been victims of these horrendous acts.
The remainder of the cast is superb as well. Liev Schreiber gives a nice, understated performance as Marty Baron who is an outsider to Boston and the Catholic Church since he is of the Jewish faith. Equally as impressive are John Slattery, Stanley Tucci (in his least Tucci-esque role in a while), Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff, and Filmthusiast poster boy Michael Cyril Creighton. They all deliver extraordinary performances that never once compromise the authentic feel the movie maintains.
Boston is a hard city to fake, yet they managed to do just that by filming in both Boston and Toronto. The atmosphere is irreplaceable and the people unmistakable and, as much as I hate to use this clichéd phrase (Thanks, David Wain), the city of Boston is almost a character in the movie. The people of Boston care about their faith and the Catholic Church specifically and are protective of it to the extent that they will aggressively deny a long running and expansive threat to their community. No one wants to go against the church, even if they find the actions of many of their priests appalling, and that fear drives the many broken voices of these sexual assaults into submission. The community needs the Boston Globe and its team on Spotlight. It takes all of their determination, humanity, and fearlessness to attempt to overcome and expose a formidable enemy. Watching the end credits, where they spell out the extent of the Catholic Church’s cover-up, makes you wish that the situation would have been one where they never had to.
SPOTLIGHT is among the greatest films of the year because it tells the story of what happens when a community turns its back on the terrible crimes that are being committed at the center of it. Change can’t occur until it’s acknowledged that the crimes are even happening. This is a message we could really stand to listen to now more than ever.