One might think that a film about a team of investigative reporters going about their job, slowly putting the puzzle pieces of a story together might not sound like too exciting a film. But Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s new film about the investigation by the Boston Globe that uncovered the Catholic priest child sexual abuse scandal would blow that low bar expectation right out of the water.
At its core, Spotlight is an engage and powerful film and an early standout as we head into the Oscar film season. It could even be argued that Spotlight surpasses Alan J. Pakulas’ 1976 classic All The Presidents’ Men as the best movie about investigative journalism ever made.
Spotlight is the name of the Globe‘s special investigative journalism team. Working under editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team develops their stories with a degree of secrecy and autonomy from the rest of the paper that allows them to really dig and build their reporting without the pressures that may affect the regular material being written in the newsroom. When the team – personified by Brian d’Arcy James, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo – discover that the Boston archdiocese may have covered up some allegations of child sexual abuse committed by priests, they are encouraged to dig further by the Globes’ incoming editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber).
But in a town with a predominately Catholic population, the going is not going to be easy for the reporters, and there’s more than a tinge of racism in the pushback that Robby and his team receive when it is pointed out to them that their new editor is Jewish. The Boston archdiocese’s Cardinal Law even “gifts” Baron a copy of the Catholic Catechism, a none too subtle inference. But Baron has also committed an even worse sin, he is not a Boston native.
This is a film about the process of the investigation more than anything else. McCarthy’s script takes great pains to walk the audience through each step of how the reporters uncovered the shocking revelation that there were not just a small handful of priests committing these abuses but nearly 90, and that the archdiocese was systematically covering up their offenses and making it possible for them to prey again.
McCarthy avoids loading up the film with personal drama for the main characters. Their life is their work and the only time we see anything about their families is when their investigation impacts those relationships. James’ character wants to warn his neighbors with children that there is a home in the neighborhood which is used to house priests on “sabbatical” but can’t for fear that the team’s investigation could be compromised if word of it got out. McAdams’ reporter is afraid of what reaction her devout Catholic grandmother will have when their story is published. All four members of the team are Catholics to varying degrees and they find themselves wrestling with their own feelings about the Church as they continue to compile information about the abuses. None of these moments overshadow the film’s tracking of their investigation, but it does color the characters by giving them personal stakes in their work. Additionally, this gives audiences various avenues in which they may explore their own reactions to the revelations that the Spotlight team uncover.
In a welcome move, McCarthy also manages to avoid giving any of the characters big, rousing, impassioned monologues about the importance of journalism and the need to report this story, damn the consequences. The closest we come is when Ruffalo’s character raises his voice to Robby in disagreement over publishing the story with the information that they already have or delay in favor of further investigation. In the hands of lesser actors the scene would have played out as pure scenery-chewing Oscar bait, but here it plays out much more naturally as the disagreement between two passionate colleagues that it is. The film has no need to call attention to the power of its story and its storytelling.