If The Wire‘s 5th season could be boiled down and transmuted into a movie, it might look something like the remarkable new film Spotlight.
Like David Simon’s television masterwork, Tom McCarthy’s movie revels in the dogged hard work that goes into old-school journalism and celebrates regular, working-class heroes, even as our current media landscape is still feeling the aftershocks of the digital revolution.
Based on The Boston Globe’s investigative unit of the same name, Spotlight depicts the real-life uncovering of a massive child abuse scandal in the Catholic church. Catalysed by the arrival of a new editor and aided by a strong sense of justice and unrelenting inquiry, the members of Spotlight would go on to break decades of silence and bring light to a widespread pattern of molestation in a series of stories that would lead them to a Pulitzer Prize.
That story sounds grandiose and wide-reaching, and indeed it is, but the genius of Spotlight is its ability to tell a complex (and true) story with a surplus of characters and moving parts in a coherent and well-paced fashion. It avoids a minefield of clichés, only once indulging in an over-the-top speech (that will likely appear in Mark Ruffalo’s Oscar reel). The cast is uniformly excellent, with one clear standout that should garner awards attention for a veteran actor.
The movie begins in July 2001, as incoming Editor-In-Chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) unearths an earlier Boston Globe piece about an abusive priest that didn’t make waves when initially printed. Seeing a loose thread, Baron assigns the largely autonomous Spotlight team to look closer. It’s a shrewd move that doesn’t immediately pay dividends, but raises eyebrows as Baron, a Jewish man, essentially takes on the Catholic church as his first order of business in the deeply religious city of Boston.
When the newspaper decides to sue the church to release sealed documents from earlier settlements, lines are drawn and the Spotlight team has to go all-in to get to the bottom of a vast scandal. It’s shocking to see the gradual reveal that nearly 250 priests had molested children over several decades in the Boston Archdiocese, with the church making payments to victims and getting Non-Disclosure Agreements signed along the way to protect themselves.
Schreiber is understated and inscrutable as the focused Baron, though it’s the main Spotlight team that gets the most screentime. Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes has probably the showiest role and he digs into it accordingly. Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James as fellow reporters Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll are equally solid, sketching just enough of these people’s lives to create context and sympathy while still allowing the film to juggle multiple plot threads.
A game Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer who represented the victims and continues to advocate for them despite encountering monolithic opposition, while Billy Crudup is suitably slick and oily as a conflicted lawyer for the church who helped facilitate deals over the years. The list keeps going, with character actors like John Slattery, Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle (in a subtly villainous turn) all adding to the rich tapestry of the movie’s world.
Yet it’s Michael Keaton as Spotlight Team Leader Walter “Robby” Robertson that gives the most compelling performance in a movie full of them. Robertson is the glue that binds the Spotlight team together, much as Keaton himself turns a great movie into a near-masterpiece. Robertson’s journey is the movie in microcosm, as he slowly comes to realize the depth and breadth of this awful abuse that’s plagued Boston for years. In a 180 from last year’s bombastic Birdman, Keaton never overplays his hand here, keeping key pieces of character information and motivation just beneath the surface until they erupt with bombshell results.
There’s plenty of quietly powerful scenes in Spotlight like that, from victims’ descriptions of abuse suffered at the hands of clergymen to a priest’s flat admission and absurd justification for his terrible actions (that shockingly actually happened quite closely to how its depicted here). The movie simply barrels forward, accruing these moments and showing much of the city itself as complicit in this terrible cover-up. It gains power and momentum as it progresses and builds to a moment of catharsis and exposure – as The Globe begins publishing months worth of the Spotlight team’s work.
An epilogue details the Catholic church’s response and is jaw-dropping in its lack of accountability, though that may not come as a surprise for many. Yet the fine work of the Spotlight team lives on, gathering awards and continuing to tell stories, taking the form of a movie here. It’s a fine line to walk, as Spotlight‘s carefully modulated tone proves to be the secret to its success, neither sensationalizing real-life tragedy nor shying away from or white-washing the uglier aspects of abuse.
Sporting a well-researched and intricate script that’s brought to life by an all-time great cast, Spotlight shows that regular people can take on entrenched institutions, bringing much-needed attention to dire issues and eliciting responses when only ambivalence existed before. It’s also about empathy, how bureaucracies can fail their constituents, and the benefit of quiet, hard work by real heroes that can sometimes shift how we see the world.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Runtime: 128 minutes