Spotlight is the closest journo-movie heir to Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 masterpiece, All the President’s Men, and it has the bloodline to prove it.
Enter the Boston Globe offices in 2001, a land of cubicles that is not very different from that of its journo-movie forefathers. A new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, so subtle and unrecognizable) arrives at the office, and redirects the Globe’s Spotlight team, an investigative unit within the paper, to cases of sexual abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests in the Boston area–a city that, director Tom McCarthy ominously reminds us often with with nearly every exterior shot, celebrates its Roman Catholic roots with a church in every neighborhood.
The Spotlight team is supervised by Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery, as effortless and charming as ever)–who is, yes, the son of the editor at the Washington Post during Woodward and Bernstein’s coverage of Watergate, ergo, bloodline–and comprised of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton, who is more refreshing here than he was in, say, Birdman), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, turning in an energetic performance), Sacha Pfeffer (Rachel McAdams, effective and appropriately restrained), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James, solid and sometimes even humorous).
The team discovers that the Boston Archdiocese have been covering up the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests for decades. And, it’s not just a Boston problem–it’s happening all over the United States, and perhaps all over the world. Although cases of pedophile priests and their subsequent cover-ups have been on the evening news for more than a decade, it never becomes less disgusting, or less shocking. We know that, and the film understands that all too well.
What allows Spotlight a place in the upper echelon of journalism movies is that it’s really about the work itself. It can feel like a slow burn procedural sometimes, but it’s not a procedural in the way, say, Law and Order: Special Victims Unit is a procedural, because it doesn’t play games with the audience, and it doesn’t treat its subjects like spectacles. The film is not afraid to shy away from the fact that important stories get shoved to the side all the time, and it’s easy to wonder why justice doesn’t prevail as quickly as it should, even when the film’s heroes are at the helm. And like all good journalism, it’s also an exceedingly straightforward, earnest, and compassionate film.
As much as the film wants to celebrate its journalistic heroes, it’s also a film that allows the disturbing abuse to speak for itself. There’s a scene at a diner where Sacha talks to a gay sexual abuse victim and he abruptly ends his description of his encounter with the priest with “then he molested me,” and Sacha urges him to be more specific, because, well, words, however painful, really matter in this story.
Sure, Sacha believes him, but she knows that her readers like details–or else, they–we, the public–may not believe it at all. However, it’s the kind of scene, if done poorly, could feel like a spectacle awaiting the dramatic swelling of a film score, but the subtlety alone gives the audience a sense that McCarthy and Co. care about the victims and want to give them a fair chance to tell their stories, without any judgment or distractions.
Similar to how journalists operate, McCarthy treats its audience like a court of public opinion. The film meticulously documents the discovery of each puzzle piece, proving it time and time again, until it is deemed fit to fall into place. It wants to be a film that doesn’t take that many chances, which works in the film’s favor.
Also working in the film’s favor is the ensemble cast. The cast spits out McCarthy and Josh Singer’s dialogue with serious urgency, and balanced by movie office-calibre wit. Other noteworthy performances include Stanley Tucci, as an attorney advocating for sexual abuse victims, and Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan, as attorneys who assisted the Catholic church in settling under-the-table sexual abuse cases.
Spotlight is not a frivolous film, nor is it an ambiguous film. It’s a film that treats its victims, survivors, and heroes with the kind of respect they deserve. Although it’s a film that clearly condemns its villains–the church and church leaders–it’s also somewhat empathetic to their plight, in a way that makes the situation more frighteningly human than purely monstrous. Yes, there’s a sense of black and white here, but the film is smart enough to acknowledge that the audience’s choice shouldn’t be so difficult at all.