Methodical, mannered, and measured, Spotlight is a graceful story culled from lurid details; an honourable presentation of shockingly dishonourable behaviour; and an ensemble drama that acts as a tribute to its heroes without placing them on a pedestal. Concrete, exacting, and immaculately controlled, it’s a journalistic procedural that delivers its message with breathtaking force.
In 2001, The Boston Globe hires a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is introduced to Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the editor of the Spotlight team. The Spotlight team is comprised of a select group of investigative reporters who write articles that take months to research and publish. After Baron reads a column revealing that the Archbishop of Boston knew about a priest sexually abusing children and did nothing to stop him, he urges the Spotlight team to take a closer look. What they uncover shook the world.
Writer-director Tom McCarthy began his career as the person behind the camera of three micro-budget but highly acclaimed (and mostly well-deservingly so) independent films. One of these films, The Station Agent, singlehandedly launched the career of the great Peter Dinklage, aka Tyrion Lannister. One of these films, The Visitor, gave the great Richard Jenkins, aka Nathaniel Fisher, his sole Oscar nomination. And one of these films, Win Win, played like a who’s-who of small screen talent: Jeffrey Tambor (pre-Transparent), Melanie Lynskey (Two and a Half Men), Margo Martindale (Justified), Amy Ryan (The Office), and the great Paul Giamatti (American Splendor).
Then came The Cobbler, a 2014 Adam Sandler-starring “comedy” almost unbelievable in its degree of failure. In hindsight, it is even more of an utter train wreck, a misfire on the level of late-era M. Night Shyamlayan (The Last Airbender), dull and cloying and ridiculous and naïve. Thank goodness for Spotlight, a monster-sized rebound that assures us critics that we weren’t crazy when we labelled McCarthy a promising filmmaker on the rise. Not since Amy Berg’s distressing documentary Deliver Us from Evil have we seen a film that depicts the events and circumstances surrounding the now-publicized scandal with such integrity and scathing indictment.
In fact, Spotlight may be McCarthy’s best film yet; it’s definitely his most assured. Well-acted and well-cast, proceeding step-by-step through the discovery of one of the most devastating cover-ups of the 20th century, and acting a damning critique of a major religious institution, Spotlight is nearly everything a movie should be. It’s topical and engaging and executed with conviction, with a sense of the responsibility that must have been hanging over the heads of everyone involved in the project.
Keaton proves that his artistic rebirth in last year’s Best Picture winner Birdman, for which he received an Oscar nomination, was no fluke: his Robby is a more subdued performance, but he is torn, committed, and focused on the task at hand in a way that is gripping to watch. Mark Ruffalo, who consistently chooses memorable roles at least once every two or three years (see You Can Count on Me, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Zodiac, The Kids Are All Right), adds another to the list as the righteously incensed Michael Rezendes. The rest of the supporting characters are similarly spot-on, with anger and disgust simmering under the surface, but rarely boiling over.
Spotlight shines a light on the essential, inevitably “boring” work of door-knocking and fact-checking and call-answering, and for that reason, it appears to be getting less credit than it’s due. The Spotlight team’s efforts laid a foundation for groundbreaking, if heartbreaking, success: in 2003, The Boston Globe, on behalf of the Spotlight team, received the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service “for its courageous, comprehensive coverage of sexual abuse by priests, an effort that pierced secrecy, stirred local, national and international reaction and produced changes in the Roman Catholic Church.”
Absolute power corrupts absolutely: the words may have become a cliché, but they’re no less true, and the brevity and depth of that truth hits you again and again at the closing credits, as you read an interminable list of locations, dozens or hundreds of young faces arising like a ghostly vapour attaching to each one, their innocence stripped away, their trust and optimism shattered. In that moment, you realize with gut-wrenching power the impossible scope of what was perpetrated. With education, accountability, and awareness-raising, some of which may be accomplished through this effective and uncompromising film, let it never be repeated.