With the "publish first, ask questions later" mentality of today's internet and the underfunding of newspaper staffs around the country, movies about real journalism are practically all period pieces now. Spotlight is no exception. The film, set in 2001, tracks the year-long investigation of the Boston Globe's Spotlight unit — a small, close-knit group of reporters devoted to deep investigative journalism — into the Catholic church's cover-up of sexually abusive priests, and it's one of the best journalism films ever made.
Co-Writer/Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci
Co-writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor) played a lying reporter in the fifth season of The Wire, but behind the camera with Spotlight, he's only concerned with the truth. This is a film that — more than any other in recent memory — revels in the methodical acquisition of information. When a new editor (Liev Schrieber) from outside Boston takes control at the Globe, he looks to question the status quo by assigning the Spotlight team a follow-up story about a priest accused of molesting children. Piece by piece, the reporters (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James, overseen by Michael Keaton) slowly build their case, and McCarthy eschews any attempts to make reporting look sexy or cool, keeping a deliberate pace as one revelation cascades into another.
This isn't a traditionally exciting movie, and thanks to its subject matter, it's also not exactly what I'd call "fun" to watch these people discover the scale of a massive sex abuse scandal. But though it may be slightly uncomfortable for some audiences to see, that's exactly why it's essential viewing. Through dialogue and character, McCarthy slowly pulls back the curtain and allows us to live through the reporters as they get deeper into the horrific details by way of interviews with the victims and the kind of investigative work that doesn't often happen anymore. Spotlight doesn't actually show any of the sexual acts at all, and McCarthy knows that seeing the pain on the victims' faces as they recount their stories to the team is all the emotion we need to get the full impact.
The movie touches on the idea of faith through its journalists, almost all of whom were raised Catholic, as a few struggle with their beliefs in the face of newly-discovered evil. It's also hinted that their own past relationships with the church may be partially responsible for why it took so long for these crimes to be uncovered in the first place; the church's influence over the city is pervasive, and growing up there may have caused Keaton and his team to not take the prior allegations seriously enough to warrant an earlier follow-up. Another conflict centers on when to publish the information they have: do they go after the local priests when they enough to print, or do they keep going and try to take down the entire system? The movie makes a case for both options, especially in a scene in which Ruffalo's character blows up in the newsroom in the hopes of convincing his editors to run the story as soon as possible.
Ruffalo has the movie's showiest performance, but he's very good here, transforming and disappearing into a twisted, hunched posture and speaking with a voice that sounds like he has cheeks full of cotton balls. Otherwise, this is a movie in which the actors, like the reporters they play, just put their heads down and concentrate on the job, resulting in familiar but capable work from an understated Keaton and terrific supporting actors like Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and John Slattery. McAdams, in particular, spends the film doing the type of quality work she'd be doing all the time if Hollywood could consistently find worthwhile roles for her.
Steely, straightforward, and sobering, Spotlight is sensational without ever dipping into sensationalism.