While Spotlight is an unnerving and devastating film at times, it celebrates the hard work of investigative journalists through a smart script and strong performances that overall, make for a very emotionally resonant experience.
The film, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage by a group of journalists at the Boston Globe. Beginning in 2001, the group of journalists at the Globe known as the Spotlight team were tasked with investigating a potential cover-up of local priests being shifted around to different parishes because of accusations of sexual abuse on children. As they dig deeper, they discover that these actions by the local religious authorities are the result of a larger systemic issue of the Vatican, concealing issues of molestation and child abuse within the Catholic Church on a global scale.
Reading the basic premise of the movie, it would be plausible to think the story has the potential to feel like a dry history lesson that most people would rather not know much about, or a thriller that overly exploits its touchy subject matter. Thankfully, Spotlight fits neither description. Like great procedurals before it, such as All the President’s Men or Zodiac, it seems to achieve the difficult feat of making mundane acts involved in writing these kinds of stories, exciting and heroic. When Mark Ruffalo writes a request in a court house to make sealed documents public or when Michael Keaton finds clues in the directories of the Boston Church left forgotten in basement of the Globe, you are constantly tense, as there is a looming feeling of dread just around the corner.
Boston is depicted as being an overgrown small-town: where strong communal ties are valued and it is thought wrong to go against one’s neighbour. People are warned not to divulge information and lawyers act like deceitful gatekeepers. The editor-in-chief and recent Miami transplant Marty Baron, played by a wonderfully stone-faced Liev Schreiber, is painted by members of the church as having unfavourable biases because of his lack of social ties in the area, as well as his Jewish heritage. The forces antagonizing our heroes are never too far out of the audiences mind.
McCarthy also uses a series of wide outdoor shots to effectively visualize the external factors weighing down the journalists and the newspaper as a whole. Where the characters walk, they cannot escape a Roman Catholic Church loomnig over their heads. The dark forthcoming for the newspaper is simply foreshadowed through an image of an AOL billboard over the Boston Globe offices, where they struggle to keep investigative stories like this afloat, financially. Maybe some will find the amount of shots like this a little forced as though McCarthy is hitting them over the head, but that makes the characters rarely have to vocalize their anxieties, making the depiction of their work feel more authentic.
There is something to be said about how exciting watching people be good at their jobs can be. The script doesn’t really handhold you when it comes to the interworking of a large newspaper, but the dialogue is quick and sharp, and the actors sell it enough that you trust them the whole way through. Maybe you will be lost from time-to-time as they discuss different facets of investigative reporting, but the larger themes of guilt, crisis of faith, and conflicting obligations to one’s community are always felt even though they are rarely stated outright. The main performances portraying the journalists at the Boston Globe feel deeply layered. The Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton, begins as a self-assured, sarcastic figure, and progressively questions how his own actions possibly left this story buried for years, and Rachel McAdams’ dogged reporter character, Sacha Pfeiffer, doesn’t let her emotions get the best of her during her work, but struggles when she cannot divulge information to her parents who continue to go to church every Sunday at a local parish. Both of these performances show the character’s complexities in subtle ways that become more pronounced as more evidence is revealed to them, as relationships between them and their friends and family change. The emotional resonance of their performances certainly creeps up on you. However, some may find Mark Ruffalo, who plays the Spotlight journalist Mike Rezendes, overly distracting at times, as his willingness to supposedly adopt every nervous tick and awkward stance of the real person may take attention away from the more emotional aspects of a scene.
The actors that play the victims all do an excellent job in illustrating their emotional turmoil, in the few minutes of screen time they are given. Due to the sensitive nature of the film, portraying the victims in a melodramatic or exaggerated way could have potentially derailed the storytelling. How long do you show these interviews for? How do you get the detail across to audiences before they are too upset to find the storytelling thrilling and entertaining? The answer: short and swift, like a punch to the gut. Sure, there are moments when victims have to recount their experiences in cringe-worthy detail but the lasting emotional affects of those experiences are quickly and beautifully understated: from one person’s forced, off-the-cuff joke as he recomposes himself, to another’s unemotional, terse description as he hides the needle marks on his arm. The writers don’t overplay their hand here: they know the material is powerful but they never manipulate the audience unnecessarily. The description of a melting ice-cream cone in one of these scenes for example, provides equal impact as any hysterical crying fit they could have written.
Tom McCarthy, who has directed rich character studies in the past, with The Station Agent and The Visitor, gives equal humanity to the journalists, victims and the perpetrators. Although the acts committed by the priests are reprehensible, as horrible as they may be, the writers refuse to demonize either the perpetrators of these acts or those involved in the cover-up, opting instead to illustrate the psychological context behind them, which makes the storytelling feel more shocking and true.
Perhaps related to having played a journalist on the fifth season of The Wire, McCarthy shows a deep empathy for those that write news stories like this that have worldwide implications. The film ends in a way that suggests these people rarely have time to bask in the glory or importance of their work, however humble it may seem at times. In that way, it felt comparable to the ending of All the President’s Men where Woodward and Bernstein are seen at their typewriters finishing an article that will shock the nation as people around them watch Richard Nixon’s second inauguration. Maybe in a lesser film, one would feel annoyed by such a parallel being made to a classic film, but it is one that Spotlight deserves.
Photo courtesy of Open Road Films
Jordan Dziewir is an online editor for onthedanforth.ca. If he isn’t out seeing a movie, he’s probably at home reading, looking at movie listings online, or stressing about something. Follow his mile a minute life on Facebook here.