Spotlight is a tight, blunt, un-cinematic and un-fussy movie that’s as to the point the moment in journalism it explores. The movie is almost documentary-like as it dramatizes the true story of a handful of Boston Globe reporters who exposed a wide-reaching sex-abuse-and-cover-up scandal in the Roman Catholic Church. The movie never gives into the sensational subject matter or exploits it for melodrama; instead it remains a grounded character drivenstory that is predicated on the nitty-gritty details and painstaking work that went into exposing such a major story. Spotlight is one of the best movies of the year, offering the kind of measured craft and adult-minded drama that we once had been granted at a studio level, more akin to a film like All The President’s Men.
It is not a little ironic that I saw the film well over a month ago and kept putting off writing the review because I kept getting distracted by things going on in the current news cycles. On the plus side, Spotlight has been slowly expanding it’s opening to reach well over 2000+ theaters by the time awards season kicks into high gear come February and March. The idea that we become so focused on other things going on in the world when there is something pressing right in front of you is a big part of Spotlight’s commentary on this particular story. Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (with the help of co-writer Josh Singer), Spotlight is a refreshingly thoughtful “classic” entertainment. We follow the aforementioned team of Boston Globe reporters (played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James) while they follow a story pitched by their new editor (a low-key and lived-in Liev Schreiber) that eventually unfolds the “truth” that high-ranking Catholic Bishops in Boston and elsewhere had covered up countless instances of child sex abuse at the hand of priests by buying silence and shifting the priest-offenders to different parishes. None of this is news to anyone who followed the story at the time or since or perhaps saw Amy Berg’s documentary Deliver Us From Evil, but this is a remarkably assured recreation of a major journalistic triumph.
This is a film that is structured like a “no-frills” procedural with no subplots, action beats, romantic interests, or other distractions from the main subject. It’s less some sort of reverent ode print journalists and more a reminder of the importance of having a vigorously conducted investigation. It’s a movie that reminds us that for all the faults and biases of the media that when they make the effort of actual face-to-face and document-to-document investigations, the ethics of which and the accuracy of the evidence are every bit if not more important than the “truth” being investigated. Spotlight is as much about the importance of “getting it absolutely right,” as the film’s timeline drags on for months before the reporters dares to break such a story.
By avoiding indulging in the obvious cinematic tendencies we’ve grown accustomed to in similar-minded movies, Spotlight can concentrate on letting audiences fill in the dramatic blanks themselves. The dramatic beats that land do so with aplomb and are of course helped by the cast bringing this all to life. As much as it’s a film about people’s relationship with faith, it’s also an investigation into society’s relationship with journalism and media debating whether or not it is ethical to deviate from the “perceived” facts in order to portray a more accurate truth while holding the media accountable for not acting sooner on such stories. I can’t decide what’s more devastating, the horrifying text scroll at the end listing all the other places where such scandals were discovered (global “epidemic”), or the idea that even the momentary whistleblowers are made to face their own long-run complicity before they took action.
The movie evokes the frustration at having to stay silent and potentially let more victims suffer in the present tense so that the reporters can build a strong enough case to bring the issue to the light of the populace. Stanley Tucci, who is superb as the weary and beaten down attorney for various sex abuse victims, is given a monologue that exposes the tricky balance of being upfront about the crimes committed and the effect on the victims without wallowing on exploitation/sensationalism.
The movie also touches on those who would prefer not to see this scandal uncovered by exploring how the church and the government intersects in Boston; but again the movie trusts audiences to put all of these things together themselves. Mostly it’s difficult to watch a moment where journalists were doing their job with both impeccable professionalism and incredible patience and not be saddened at the notion that some of the media in 2015 would hardly justify such dedication.
Today there is more monetary value in the “hot take” but more so in the modern polarized political climate; there are few reasons to assume that a story like the one uncovered then wouldn’t be merely viewed under a “how does this affect the current agendas of the moment” mentality. Again, it is no small irony that this film opens the same year as Truth, a film that documents what may have been the turning point in the eventual death of slow journalism in our instant infotainment age. Having said that, I believe and it seems that the movie believes that the key for print media to remain relevant is to do their jobs better than we as readers expect by providing what an online blog post can never do as opposed to struggling to approximate the online experience. The bottom line and what matters to a movie like Spotlight is not that these journalists got the story first, but rather that they took the time to get the story right. And as surely as any film about news and journalism with self-congratulatory naval-gazing, Spotlight is more of a celebration of professionalism rather than the industry and occupation. And by being as good as it is, it becomes the very thing it celebrates.