Tom McCarthy’s new film is vital and great. It's a description you’ll here from most people who have seen it and that I’m happy to report matched my own reaction to it.
When Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives as the new editor of the Boston Globe, he is not just a man coming to another city to work on a newspaper, but like a stranger in a new land. When he first meets with Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton, even more enjoyable here than in Birdman!), the head of the paper’s Spotlight team (a portion of the staff designated to cut-throat investigative journalism on “big” stories that often require months of research), we see him with a copy of The Curse of the Bambino in his attempt to become acculturated to a city where baseball is like a religion. In reality, he cares nothing for the sport.
Organized religion is a big deal too in Boston, with a massive Catholic population and, according to the film, a 53% percent Catholic readership base at the Globe. Baron, however, is Jewish, which, along with his disinterest in baseball and a quiet, reserved temperament, would suggest he’s not going to be the most popular man in the city. At one point, Cardinal Law gives him a Catechism as a welcome gift, calling it a “guide to the city of Boston,” at which Baron smirks in almost laughable disbelief.
But Baron is fully disinterested in being liked, and as such doesn’t give a moment’s hesitation when he calls to the Globe’s attention that the archdiocese in Boston might be covering up an abuse scandal and that the paper ought to give it more attention. A mere mention of sex abuse scandals would be insufficient when a case of evil and corruption could be fully exposed. Theoretically this is one of the jobs of a newspaper, but in practice it wouldn’t go so well in Boston, a city where dark secrets are buried in order to maintain the strong pride that drives it and allows it to operate, as one character puts it, like “a small town in many ways.”
Once Spotlight—which besides Robinson includes Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), quietly intense, Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), cool and collected, and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), jittery and fiery with his head seemingly permanently bent to the side from so many phone calls—begins the investigation, the film becomes a barrage of file searching, interviews, and door knocking, the team racing to uncover the truth like it’s a time bomb.
And every aspect of the investigation is vital, as a big story like this can’t afford to leave a stone unturned, in part because of old fashioned journalistic integrity, and also because unleashing the scandal (which, as the film progresses, becomes far more terrifying than anyone thought) will inevitably shake a community that reveres its Catholic identity to its core. Attorneys must be hounded for information, because a crucial part of the case is how the law was a major player in the cover-ups. Victims, or as the film calls them, survivors, cannot simply say they were abused, but must express in detail how. It’s here that the film is at it’s most heartbreaking, as well as a scene when Pfeiffer interrogates a priest who readily admits sexually abusing children but justifies it by claiming he gained no pleasure from it. His ignorance and comfort with the situation is spine-chilling. And then there are the documents, the scrutinizing of records to find hidden clues that indicate how the church chose to cover-up the scandals.
The film stresses the difficulty in all of this, but it’s not so much the process that’s tough (once the case really takes off, you get the sense that these people are in a kind of journalistic heaven—they’re not just on the team because of their capabilities, but because they eat up a chance to throw themselves full-on into a huge story), but the subject. When the people of Boston are referred to having a small town mentality, that includes the Spotlight team, all of whom grew up here and go along with the city’s way of running itself—even though they’re all lapsed Catholics at best.
At one point Rezendes gets ahold of some vital records and wants to run the story ahead of time simply for the principle of the matter. “It could have been you, it could have been me!” he yells at Robinson, who wants to (at Baron’s command) take the story further in order to show that the scandal is not about individuals, but an institution. But Rezendes wants to print the story sooner simply to protect potential victims. He treats the situation like an emergency, like a gapping wound that needs to be mended to prevent more bleeding.
The urgency, though, that drives the film does not diminish the melancholy at the heart of the picture. The viewer can’t help but be riveted by the procedural, but McCarthy smoothly drives home the point that this is a situation structured around sadness. While it could have been a straight-up condemnation of the Church (though Catholics don’t get much of a defense from the movie, either), the film instead shows how the guilt is extends not just to the religious members who were either culprits or suppressing the culprit’s offenses, but to the law, and, in a late reveal, the press itself.
Everyone is mortified by the situation, and when the story finally runs, the sense of achievement is matched by pain. I could imagine a different filmmaker choosing to use a montage that showed reactions from numerous readers of various classes in Boston, but instead McCarthy wisely just gives us a shot of Pfeiffer’s mother reading the piece at the kitchen table, a mournful, pained expression on her wrinkled face. She asks weakly for a glass of water, and we know exactly the unsettled grief she’s feeling.
A much-discussed aspect of Spotlight is both its timeliness and its harkening back to classic newspaper movies of old. I’ve scarcely read a review of the film that doesn’t liken it to All the President’s Men. The timeliness of the movie, though, I think is more important. Its relevance has less to do with its topic than with its nature as a newspaper movie about a time (2001-02) just before newspapers began to slide into obsolescence. And the fact that it deals with massive stories requiring months of research I think is massively noteworthy in an age when the majority of things read on the internet are usually 1000 words or less. It reminds us of the importance of this kind of lengthy and well-researched writing, and how its impact is far more lasting than the largely banal reads we’re inundated with on a daily basis.
And it’s that kind of diligent work, that kind of courage, that gives us the kind of stories that need to be told no matter how difficult they are to tell. Without them, we wouldn’t have a movie like this to love.