Film Review – Spotlight
Spotlight‘s greatest strength is showing that investigative journalism is a lot of work and that secrets have many layers where the answer can be right in front of you and sometimes it is merely a lack of action that can cause the truth to remain hidden. This is not a message film in the traditional sense. It shows what is wrong through simply telling the truth by letting us see all the work that went into the investigation by the Boston Globe in revealing the cover-up by the Catholic Church of its pedophile priests. While covering a heavy subject matter involving deep emotions, the film does a brilliant job of not letting these emotions overwhelm what is happening, not by hiding them but by making them secondary to simply seeing how these reporters did their job.
Our investigators are introduced when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) comes in to take over running the Boston Globe newspaper and asks Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) (who is the editor of the Spotlight, the investigative journalism division) to look deeper into the pedophile priest phenomenon and see if there is proof that the Catholic Archdiocese was complicit in the priests’ conduct. Our team is made up of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and another editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). These people are a well-oiled machine when it comes to their work. We know almost nothing about these reporters beyond vague references to family members like Mike has an estranged wife and Walter is married, in fact the only family we see is Sacha’s Catholic grandma. This lack of personal knowledge is actually helpful for the film so that we do not get distracted by personal details; we see these people as reporters first and everything else second.
As they go about doing their job it is interesting in that many of the people they talk to, including the lawyers for the Church, show that the Boston Globe has been just as bad as they have been in dealing with the Church. In fact, in many ways the paper has been complicit even more so by their lack of attention to this issue. This isn’t the paper versus the big bad establishment though there are parts of that to this film as well. The Church has a lot of influence but there have been those in that structure that have tried to help stop this and have had the paper ignore them. This isn’t the paper being evil, it is that they have made mistakes and not paid attention to what now appears to be right in front of them. Even when it seems like it is an open secret among the upper echelons of Boston and with so many victims meeting and talking with each other.
Throughout the film it is never made clear who is going to be helpful or hurtful toward bringing this story to life. When Marty first starts at the paper he talks about cuts that will need to be made and is shown to be very unsocial. When he brings the story idea up it is never clear what his agenda is, and if he will want to stay with it as the film progresses. There is also Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the lawyer who is representing several victims of the priests, who seems reluctant to talk to the Globe and also comes across as eccentric and maybe nuts the way he talks. You cannot tell what his agenda is at first and even if he is doing good will he actually be a help to the team? This kind of character work lets us feel the nervousness that the reporters feel being always on their toes, never certain when or where they could make the big break or become completely lost, or worse lose the story to someone else.
While this is an ensemble film there was a standout for me in Michael Keaton. He does a magnificent job of being both the elder newspaper man who knows it all while still being able to be just one of the investigators. He is not superior to any of them; he just has experience and knows how to play things out. When one of his staff argues with him he calmly explains his point and later that person admits he was right. Keaton shows restraint in that situation but knows how to put pressure on when need be and has the ability to show vulnerability when he realizes he has screwed up.
Director Tom McCarthy was transcendent in how he films, moving things along, making certain we are never lost in all the details and people the team investigates and talks with. There is no flourish I can point to that made the film work. It all moves about so naturally as we see these people it is like it was captured in real time by a documentary crew and this is how they put the film together. It is the kind of work that you do not notice at first but then thinking back you realize how effortlessly he makes filming this seem.
This was a film that at first viewing I admired but did not love, yet it is in thinking back on it now that the genius of the work becomes more and more evident. There are multiple layers to this story and the film takes the time to show that there is more to it than clear good and evil. There is evil but there are also conflicting ideas and at times simply missing what should be right in front of you. We see how this horrible practice was able to go on for so long and what kind of bravery it takes to do what is right, and also every step reporters have to go through from the mind-numbing research to self-examination it takes to make a story really work.