[This is a re-post of my review from the 2015 Toronto International Film Festival; Spotlight opens today in limited release.]
Investigative journalism may not be dead yet, and Tom McCarthy’s searing Spotlight is a powerful reminder of why it’s so necessary to our world. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team breaking the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sex abuse is one of the most important events in the Church’s history, and considering that the Church has over a billion members and has been around for a couple millennia, that makes the story one of the most important in Western history. And yet McCarthy keeps his focus on the shoe-leather reporting that got the story together, and masterfully avoids clichés along the way while wisely pointing out that there’s enough blame for the abuse to go around. It’s a movie that demands and earns your full attention as it expertly strings together a host of important players and events, and thanks to the direction and the excellent ensemble, we hang on every word.
In July 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) became the editor of the Boston Globe and tasked the paper’s investigative team, Spotlight, with looking into Catholic priests sexually abusing minors. Although the abuse looks like a few scattered incidents at first, the team digs further and sees that both the abuse and the cover-up were systemic. However, thorough their investigation, they receive pushback from various organizations and individuals who would prefer to let sleeping dogs lie.
However, McCarthy makes sure to never sensationalize the investigation. There’s no hackneyed moments of the reporters looking over their shoulders as they go down a dark alley. McCarthy respects their work by highlighting the grit and intelligence of following down leads, putting the pieces together, and uncovering information. It’s not glamorous, but he manages to make it utterly compelling, and his refusal to give into dramatic shortcuts shows great respect not only for Spotlight’s work, but also for the audience.
Spotlight demands your full attention or you will get lost. The film features a true ensemble, and while Baron helps to set off the chain of events, the main players are Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and they all lead to other important figures like attorneys Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup). The Spotlight team uncovered a vast conspiracy, and McCarthy perfectly doles out information so that the audience is never lost as long as they’re full engaged, and he we’re always engaged thanks to the superb direction and strong performances.
Although the story is shocking, Spotlight is a refreshingly subdued picture. It’s fast-paced, but characters rarely scream at each other (there is one scene where that happens, and it feels a bit like an outlier) or face intense situations. It’s a slow burn where the emotional impact comes from the victims’ tales and the outrage over the cover-up rather than any embellishments. Howard Shore’s piano-heavy score and Masanobu Takayanagi’s balanced cinematography help provide contours and shading to the world; nothing needs to be heightened, only respected.
From there, McCarthy trusts his actors, and they don’t let him down. Spotlight is a true ensemble piece, and everyone gets a chance to shine. Keaton gets the most mic-drop moments; John Slattery, who plays deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., is a delight as always; and Tucci steals every scene he’s in as the curmudgeonly Garabedian, but there’s not a weak link in the cast. Everyone is magnetic when they’re on screen, and they need to be because this is a film about research and conveying information. There’s no room to be flashy, just honest.
Spotlight is a true heir to All the President’s Men, but it’s not a throwback. If anything, it only feels more immediate because of how drastically the media landscape has changed in the past several decades. The movie convincingly shows how investigative journalism isn’t just a luxury for a newspaper or a first world country; it’s a necessity for every society, and even when we have it, we’re imperfect.
The Boston Globe doesn’t get off scot-free, and Spotlight shows that blame for the Church’s cover-up extended far beyond the Church. It went to everyone who either looked the other way or didn’t have the time or energy to even bother looking in the first place.
It’s an intricate web, but when it’s finally untangled, a remarkable and striking picture emerges. Spotlight is that picture.