There are many great films about journalists, but only a few excellent ones about journalism. It’s easy to see why. Journalists, those deadline-battling, chain-smoking mythical beings, make for naturally exciting cinema. But the actual stuff of journalism—the late nights and false starts, the endless cups of coffee, the decidedly unglamorous pursuit of a source for a quote—is tougher to weld into movie magic.
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is that rare film that is first and foremost about journalism. Methodically but stirringly, it tells us of the time in 2001 when The Boston Globe—more precisely, the investigative “Spotlight” team of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—stumbled upon, investigated and reported a story on the Boston Catholic church shielding priests guilty of sexual abuse. It is a film about the many things, big and small, mundane and pivotal, that go into reporting something of this magnitude (note that McCarthy played a journalist in the last season of the TV series The Wire, another forensic look at a newspaper office).
We see the story’s genesis in a staff meeting, with the paper’s newly appointed editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), bringing up a column about a lawyer named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who claims to have proof that the archbishop of Boston knew of a particular priest who had molested children but had done nothing about it. Baron asks Robinson, head of Spotlight, to follow up. The team speaks to Garabedian, then to some of the victims and church officials. As they continue to dig, they realize the cover-up is on a much larger scale than they or anyone else had imagined.
Their investigation is made all the more difficult by the seemingly all-pervasive influence of the Catholic church in Boston. One of the first things Baron must do as a new editor in town is meet the cardinal, and even a lapsed Catholic such as Pfeiffer will make small talk with her grandmother about which particular priest is likely to be present at a church-organized event. Even in Boston crime dramas such as Black Mass or The Departed, Catholicism is a constant. Spotlight, in a sense, is a crime drama as well, except that here religion isn’t the alternative but the cause of concern.
It’s difficult to talk about Spotlight without mentioning that other film about a massive conspiracy exposed by a couple of reporters. Those looking for signs of All The President’s Men in Spotlight will find them in jumpy conversations, the sterile white offices, a mention of “deep background”, even a scene in which the camera follows a character running at night. Debts notwithstanding, Spotlight can claim to be that film’s equal in just about every department except one: its visual sense. Gordon Willis was the director of photography on President’s Men, and his off-centre framing and noir interludes were another way of signalling a country in disarray. Spotlight, by contrast, is competently but unmemorably shot, sticking for the most part to rudimentary camera set-ups and letting the writing and performances carry the film.
But what writing it is, and what performances they are. The screenplay (by McCarthy and Josh Singer) isn’t overly eager or smart; time and again, it promotes perseverance over wit and moral superiority, which might not have been the case if someone like Aaron Sorkin had written this. Ruffalo gets the film’s showiest part and does a fine job, telegraphing Rezendes’ emotional state through subtle changes in body language and facial expression. Keaton, Tucci and McAdams are all compelling, but I found myself looking forward to the moments when Schreiber would appear on screen. His Marty Baron is careful, undemonstrative, steadfast and vital: the ideal editor, in a film that takes seriously the ideals of journalism.
This review appeared in Mint.