The rumors about “Spotlight” are true — a journalism film hasn’t been this effective, clean and compelling since “All the President’s Men” in 1976. Considering it is a story built largely around the investigative reporting process, it must seize its audience from start to finish and that’s exactly what director Tom McCarthy ensures that it does.
“Spotlight” tells of the titular team of Boston Globe reporters who in 2001-2002 revealed the unimaginable extent of the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover up of priests molesting and abusing children. When the Globe gets a new editor in outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), he senses a bigger story in a recent Globe column about a priest who molested children in several parishes over 30 years and the victims’ lawyer who said Boston’s esteemed cardinal knew about it and did nothing. He puts the Spotlight team, led by Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) on the story and they soon discover the unbelievable truth.
The film is an interesting choice for McCarthy, whose prior work, including “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win” were much more focused on characters and personal relationships between unlikely companions. Yet perhaps it is his specialization in interpersonal dynamics that brings out the humanity at the core of this exposition-heavy script he wrote with Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”).
“Spotlight” is a top-shelf procedural that glues you from start to finish despite the tall task of having to thread together countless scenes of reporters digging and asking questions of each other and various interview subjects from lawyers and experts to the victims of abuse. Much of the scenes are composed of two actors having a conversation, which is where McCarthy’s strengths and the stellar cast come into play.
In addition to Schreiber and Keaton, performances from Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci and Brian d’Arcy James are authentic and give the film its drama. There’s not much overarching conflict and emotional highs and lows in the material, so it’s incumbent of these actors to bring out the tensions in the small one-on-one conversations and to mirror the emotions the audience is experiencing as this stark and unnerving story continues to reveal its full extent. McCarthy really gives his cast the time and space to be real and let the emotions speak for themselves without shoehorning in more inherently dramatic content.
What also makes “Spotlight” so successful is how it doesn’t lose sight of the big picture and how determined McCarthy is to convey the context of the story. The film is as much about Boston and the Catholic-dominated, Red Sox-loving culture there as it is about investigative reporting that matters. The script is also in touch with the spiritual, faith-based components of the story and the real emotional trauma of this subject matter that this kind of “journalism prestige” picture might incidentally overlook.
Yet for all the sensitivities that McCarthy brings to the film as someone whose largely made independent films, “Spotlight” still has that taste of those great dramas of the 20th century that used to clean up at the Oscars and undoubtedly will earn some nominations and wins.
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schriber