Review: Spotlight (2015)

Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is one of those sober-minded, midrange adult movies that critics like to pretend don’t exist anymore. It boasts a fabulous cast and tells a true story of vital importance about the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s systematic coverup of child sex abuse. This potent subject matter and the based-on-fact story of truth triumphing over evil makes the film a natural rallying cry for Hollywood’s progressive agenda, but, thankfully, Spotlight never gives in to its baser impulses. It’s subtle and stoic. It’s more interested in the grit of journalism than the preaching of messages. By staying true to the ideals that inspired it, it registers as something intelligent and profound, instead of merely rousing.

The film has a fine ensemble, one that would make you think the film is an actor’s showcase—which it is, but not in the typical way. Michael Keaton stars as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the editor of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team, which dedicates years of work to focused, comprehensive investigations on important subjects. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James round out the Spotlight team as reporters Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll. Liev Schreiber is Marty Baron, the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, fresh from New York by way of Florida. He pushes the Spotlight team to investigate the local cardinal’s connection to sex abuse coverups, and the more the team investigates, the more abuses and cover-ups they discover. It looks like they might have discovered something systemic. The rest, as they say, is history.

The cast here is in top form, leaning into the investigative focus in Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer’s script and avoiding showboating. That’s not to say these characters aren’t colourful: Keaton’s Robinson and Ruffalo’s Rezendes, in particular, are a bit odd, with Keaton spouting his usual hyperactivity (somewhat reigning it in for a film of this sort) and Ruffalo embodying an almost-autism-spectrum level of investigative dedication. They make the most of their scenes, but the whole cast is given real dramatic substance to explore, like when Baron has a sitdown with the cardinal he’s investigating or Pfeiffer shows her devoutly religious grandmother her research. This is truly an ensemble piece.

Even the actors showing up in ancillary roles are excellent. John Slattery is the Globe’s Assistant Managing Editor, who’s defensive of perceived attacks on his city’s insularity, even if he understands the gravity of the investigation they’re undertaking. Billy Crudup shows up as a lawyer who had provided litigation for the Church, avoiding simple shades in a role that could be an easy villain. Most impressive is Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian, the lawyer representing dozens of abuse victims, and a central figure in exposing the Church’s coverups.

Aside from providing its excellent cast with exceptional material, Spotlight avoids almost all the pitfalls of films “based on a true story.” It never sensationalizes the victim’s stories, allowing those stories to be told with sensitivity and unflinching detail, but without reducing them to gritty tales of exploitation in service of a larger message. Aside from one shouting match between Ruffalo and Keaton, in which they debate the danger of pushing off the publication of their investigation, the movie avoids any grandstanding. The Spotlight team eventually won the Pulitzer Prize for their extensive reporting work, but the film doesn’t show their winning the award. There’s no rousing applause for the team at the end of the film. The most congratulation they get is a “Nice article,” from a secretary, and a figurative pat on the back from their boss. After that, it’s back to work for these reporters, to dig deeper into the story and keep capturing the truth.

As for the technical filmmaking, Spotlight is cleanly shot and cannily edited. It has the pace of a thriller, holding your attention throughout, but it never blows up the investigation into melodrama. The visual style is admirable, but could have more nuance—the film is constantly being compared to Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men for its look at journalism, and while it shares that film’s vigour for good reporting, it lacks that seventies’ classic’s visual wit.

If Spotlight might not reach the status of all-time classic, it is a great film. Whenever a lesser Hollywood film would grab the viewer by the throat, McCarthy choses to tap the viewer on the shoulder, laying out the evidence, connecting the dots, and allowing the viewer to reach his or her own conclusion. He captures the essence of what journalism ought to be about.

9 out of 10

Spotlight (2015, USA)

Directed by Thomas McCarthy; written by Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer; starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup, with John Slattery and Stanley Tucci.