It is always interesting to watch professionals doing their best together. “Spotlight” gives us such an experience like that, and this top-notch journalism drama is calm, concise, comprehensive, and straightforward just like any good investigative article you read from newspapers. While its journalist characters are grasping the staggering scale of their unexpected scoop which will affect not only their city but the whole nation in the end, we are absorbed into the vivid, meticulous presentation of their slow but steady work progress against the corrupted system, and we become more aware of what is being at stake for them as their deadline approaches day by day.
The movie is based on a real-life story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team members, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their extensive coverage of how the child sex abuses by Catholic priests in the Boston area had been covered up by the Boston Archdiocese for many years. As shown at the end of the film, this shocking news turned out to be a mere tip of the iceberg, and the public image of the Catholic Church was considerably tarnished as a consequence as more cases of child sex abuses in the Church were revealed after the Spotlight Team’s devastating disclosure in 2002.
After the chilly prologue scene set in Boston, 1976, the movie moves forward to when the Boston Globe is about to have its new editor in 2001. Although he is not a Bostonian and still needs to learn more about the city and its local culture, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is ready to fill the position, and the key figures in the Boston Globe including Ben Bradlee Jr. (Richard Slattery) and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) are willing to work under their new boss who smoothly settles in his position with his diligent professionalism.
The Spotlight Team has been independently operated under Robinson’s supervision, and we meet his three reporters: Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). After Baron suggests to Robinson that they should dig more into the case of a Catholic priest who turns out to be responsible for numerous cases of child sex abuse, the Spotlight reporters instantly embark on the further investigation on whether the Boston Archdiocese really turned a blind eye on its bad apple. They may not be surprised when it turns out to be true, but they are shocked to learn that this is not a singular case at all. There are far more sexual predators wearing shepherd’s skin around the city, and the Archdiocese has been concealing these dangerous guys and their crimes just for protecting its holy public reputation.
As they continue their investigation, the Spotlight Team reporters come to see that they must be really careful and discreet now. While it goes without saying that their ongoing investigation can be scooped by their rival newspapers at any point, what they are going to report will be a very unpleasant news to many of their Catholic subscribers in the city to say the least. Although Robinson and his reporters are not that religious, the Catholic Church has been a major part of their daily life in Boston in one way or another, and they cannot help but be amazed by how this awful truth has been hidden from them and many others in the city for years.
Closely following each small step of their investigation progress, the screenplay by the director Tom McCarthy and his co-writer Josh Singer draws a big, exasperating picture of systemic corruption with sobering details to horrify or infuriate you. We meet two different lawyers who know a lot about how the Church has silenced many helpless victims of child sex abuse behind its back, and Billy Crudup’s slick cynicism contrasts well with Stanley Tucci’s dogged righteousness. While one believes he did as much as he could do for his clients, the other is determined to do anything legally possible for justice, and Tucci delivers one of the best lines in the film: “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them. That’s the truth of it.”
We also observe how mighty the Boston Archdiocese is as an opponent who can pull many strings through its considerable social/political influences around the city. The Spotlight Team members keep getting blocked from the courtroom documents which are necessary for their investigation, and they also feel the pressure from the outside in several directions. When Baron meets Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), this seemingly benevolent cardinal fully expects the Boston Globe to be on his church’s side, and that surely makes their meeting rather awkward. Regardless of how much Cardinal Law was actually responsible for the injustices committed under his leadership, you will roll your eyes to learn that he was virtually exempted from his scandalous blunder by his superiors in Rome while promoted to a more prestigious position later.
The most harrowing moments in the film come from the survivors of child sex abuse who are still struggling with what happened to themselves, and McCarthy thoughtfully handles these scenes with restraint and respect without sensationalizing their personal traumas. In case of the guy who initiated a support group for him and his fellow survivors, he looks unreliable at first, but then we come to sense the pain and frustration behind his fidgety appearance. He and some other survivors try to look all right while telling their individual stories to the Spotlight Team reporters, but they eventually reveal their psychological damages as recounting how they were sexually exploited by men they once believed and trusted. When Pfeiffer visits a pedophile priest at one point, this short but creepy scene suggests that familiar virulent cycle of abuse.
Balancing itself well among these various story elements, the movie keeps focusing on the strenuous activities of its earnest journalist characters, and McCarthy and his crew including the cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi and the editor Tom McArdle bring the substantial amount of efficiency and verisimilitude into their film. The scenes in the Boston Globe are filled with the palpable vibe of journalism reminiscent of “All the President’s Men” (1976), and the actors look believable in their mundane surrounding background of offices and meeting rooms. We instantly accept that their characters have worked there for years, we come to pay more attentions to what they are doing or what they are going to do next, and we are gripped by the unseen tension hovering over their workplace.
As shown from his previous films including “The Station Agent” (2003), and “The Visitor” (2007), and “Win Win” (2011), McCarthy is a skillful director very good at drawing fine performances from his performers, and he did a commendable job again here with a group of very talented performers. As effortlessly embodying their characters, they play so well with each other that we always get the dynamic sense of teamwork whenever their characters gather together to discuss on their work. Although movie does not show much of their personal life, their distinctive personalities are vividly conveyed through their professional behaviors, and that is more than sufficient for us to get to know who they are and what motivates them.
While Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton may be Oscar-nominated for their respective performances, it is difficult to single out any particular performer from the fabulous main cast in the film. Like Keaton, Liev Schreiber and John Slattery are subtle and measured in their stout performances, and Schreiber leaves an indelible impression even when the camera looks at him from the distance around the end of the film. Rachel McAdams is effectively understated when we get the glimpses of her character’s private life, and Brian d’Arcy James has his own small moment when his character happens to discover an inconvenient fact about his neighborhood. While Tucci and Crudup are constantly entertaining to watch, Neal Huff, Len Cariou, Paul Guilfoyle, and Jamey Sheridan are also notable in their small supporting roles, and Richard Jenkins, who was Oscar-nominated for his touching performance in “The Visitor”, provides an uncredited voice acting as a psychotherapist who gives some alarming research information to the Spotlight Team reporters.
“Spotlight” is a humble but exceptional drama about good investigative journalism, and it admirably and powerfully sticks to its modesty and honesty to the very end. It reminds us of what professional journalists can possibly do for our society, and it makes a strong point through its gripping story packed with human interest and social issues. They had a story which needed to be told to the public, and they did a really good job on the whole – and so does the movie.