“How do you say no to God?”
That’s one of the questions at the center of the film Spotlight, the fresh and gripping procedural focusing on journalism. It’s hard to single out the best aspect of the movie, because all of them work harmoniously. From the story, to the tone, to the performances, Spotlight shines.
Director Tom McCarthy – who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer – is also an actor, so it makes sense that the performances in Spotlight would be strong. Often this kind of director knows how to bring out the best in already good actors because they are uniquely attuned to creating an environment that performers need to thrive. And yet, I don’t think McCarthy had any right to expect the level of acting he got. With the exception of one slightly mannered performance, complete with an obvious Oscar nomination submission scene, everyone in the movie delivers. Understated and naturalistic, the actors do what they do best and facilitate the audience connecting emotionally to the story. It’s a story that is tough to sit through but is utterly compelling in how it shows dedicated people doing the right thing, and changing the world for the better in the process.
Set in the year 2001, Spotlight tells the true story of a team of Boston Globe journalists who broke wide open the story of child molestation within the Catholic Church, and its massive cover up. The team of four reporters, dubbed Spotlight, is given the opportunity to do deep investigative work, often taking months to probe a story fully. They also work in secrecy in order to protect the integrity of their work. Besides other great procedurals, Spotlight also calls to mind the best journalism films of the 1970s. Indeed, it might be the best movie about investigative journalism since All the President’s Men. Editor Tom McArdle makes fascinating what could be the very boring depiction of nuts-and-bolts research that goes into this kind of work; he expertly weaves together the scenes of characters spending hours scouring news clippings and church directories. He creates high drama where a lesser talent could produce only tedium.
As with the best of this genre, Spotlight is about so much more than merely showing the dogged newspaper reporters on the trail of their story. Because Boston has a very large Catholic population, that the story is rampant sexual abuse by the highest members of the Church’s clergy, means most of the characters deal with the crimes and cover up in a very personal way. One of the survivors of abuse describes his local priest as practically being God, so when a person with such power asks you to do anything, it’s almost impossible to say no. This is especially true when you’re a child. In a particularly moving scene late in the film, one character must confront his own negligence in the past and how his inaction might have led to more suffering.
The Spotlight team must also scale metaphorical brick walls that hinder their work and are seemingly constructed by every powerful institution in the city. When an organization as powerful and influential as the Catholic Church needs protection, every other faction with something to gain or lose will throw up road blocks to keep the truth hidden. The camerawork of the movie perfectly reflects this when the team conducts a conference call with an ex-priest who studies the problem of pedophilia in the church. As the four reporters sit in stunned silence while the ex-priest details the magnitude of the problem via speaker phone, the camera slowly, almost imperceptibly, pulls back and back and back. These journalists are all alone, left to uncover the truth with no one to help them.
All the while, there are other outside forces working against the Spotlight team simultaneously. At the beginning of the film, the Globe has hired a new editor, Marty Baron, who is known for downsizing his previous papers. The internet age is forcing traditional media to make painful cuts to staff and resources. One of the strengths of Spotlight is that McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer never explicitly say what this means to producing hard-hitting and important stories. They simply show the climate of cutbacks and journalists fearful of losing their jobs, letting the audience draw the conclusions. It’s a nuanced and tightly structured film that has the utmost respect for both the ideas it presents and its audience.
As technically flawless as the movie is, those performances I mentioned earlier make the film even better. This ensemble cast works superbly together. Back in his own spotlight after the success of last year’s Birdman, Michael Keaton plays the supervisor of the Spotlight team, Walter “Robby” Robinson. Only an actor with over three decades of experience could tease out the subtleties of his character that Keaton does. It’s a performance full of quiet dignity and restraint. Making up Robinson’s team are Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll.
Of the three reporters, only Ruffalo strikes a false note with his characterization of Rezendes. It’s possible the real life man he played is as idiosyncratic as Ruffalo portrays him, but the character comes dangerously close to being a collection of acting ticks, which makes Ruffalo distracting in a few scenes. The scene that feels most like Ruffalo is begging for an Oscar nomination is his righteous indignation speech, and it’s a shame because it might have worked perfectly if he had used the smallest amount of restraint. Overall, I like the performance in spite of its most glaring flaws.
John Slattery is particularly effective as the hard-nosed assistant managing editor of the Globe. It’s easy to be reminded of Jason Robards’ performance as editor Ben Bradlee in All the President’s Men, which is particularly apropos since Slattery’s character is Ben Bradlee, Jr., the real life son of the Robards’ character in that film. Liev Schreiber is stoic and reserved, and imparts great integrity to the new editor of the Globe, Marty Baron. Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, and Billy Crudup also turn up in small but powerful supporting roles.
With 24-hour cable news networks relying on sensationalism and blathering talking heads to fill their schedule, it’s easy to look down on journalists as a profession. Spotlight is an excellent and stupendously well executed example of why good journalism is a calling more than a career. The movie gives a unique inside look at what these men and women go through to bring the public important stories. The craftsmanship on display is of a rare caliber, making Spotlight one of the best films of 2015.
Why it got 4.5 stars:
- It really doesn't get much better than Spotlight in terms of an engrossing story and sublime acting. I think there's a greater than zero chance that Michael Keaton will be at the center of the Oscar Best Picture winner two years in a row.
Things I forgot to mention in my review, because, well, I'm the Forgetful Film Critic:
- Speaking of Keaton, it's great to see him involved in some really great material again. I realize he never really went anywhere, he's been consistently working after all, but it really feels like he's back after Birdman, and that makes me happy.
- Be prepared to leave the theater in stunned silence that lasts for awhile after seeing Spotlight. It's an emotionally devastating film that isn't easily shaken off after viewing.