Tom McCarthy’s exemplary drama shows journalists — and his cast — at their best.
Mark my words, Mr. Rezendes: if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.
If you’ve been reading this site for a while, you know that my pet genre is what I call “People talking tersely in rooms,” or films that thrill despite the action coming dominantly through dialogue. Its characters are often working to uncover the truth of things, elicit confessions, or defend their worldviews in memorable (often profane) ways. David Mamet is a master of this — look no further than the scorching Glengarry Glen Ross — but other examples include 2007’s Michael Clayton, or 2011’s Margin Call. These aren’t action movies, but to me they’re just as exciting, and just as re-watchable.
A sub-genre of that sub-genre focuses on journalists. Despite “the weary reporter” being one of cinema’s most-used character types, there really aren’t that many films that accurately tell their stories. Network, as prophetic as it turned out to be, is a satire; Broadcast News is primarily a romantic comedy. And don’t get me started on The Newsroom.
I can probably name the truly great ones on one hand: Michael Mann’s The Insider, about the Philip Morris scandal. George Clooney’s Good Night and Good Luck, about the McCarthy hearings. I liked Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon more than most. But the granddaddy of them all, the film that defines the category and may never be beaten, is the Watergate-era All the President’s Men. Not only does it capture the paranoia of the time, it shows how decidedly unglamorous and difficult the job can be. It felt real enough to be a documentary.
Spotlight, the new film centering on a group of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters at the Boston Globe, firmly cements its place in that group. At the beginning of 2002, the paper’s “Spotlight” team — a crack four-person investigative unit with the cachet to pursue long-term, deep-diving stories — got the world’s attention when they broke open the extent of the abuse happening in Boston’s Catholic churches. What began as a story about one priest and the ensuing cover-up slowly got bigger and bigger until the Globe — with the full weight of the Archdiocese in opposition — uncovered documents and testimonies indicting nearly ninety of them. Thousands of children molested, while the rogue priests simply got reassigned, and the Church paid a little hush money. The shock of the allegations hasn’t diminished in the last decade. And, as we know now, this wasn’t only happening in Boston.
It would be all too easy for writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) to make Spotlight a hit piece, puffing up the reporters as grandstanding bleeding-hearts. (See — or rather, don’t see — this season’s misfiring equivalent, Truth.) Thankfully, that’s not the case. McCarthy makes three smart choices right out of the gate. First, he casts a deep, talented ensemble that bears stunning resemblance to their real-life counterparts. Michael Keaton plays Spotlight editor (or “player-coach”) Walter Robinson, and as he goes toe-to-toe with lifelong friends in the Church establishment, I’d argue it’s even a better, less strident performance than he gave in last year’s Birdman.
His team includes Rachel McAdams (still sporting her True Detective haircut but imminently more relatable), Broadway superstar Bryan d’Arcy James, and Mark Ruffalo, who is arguably the film’s lead. As the Portuguese Mike Rezendes, it’s he who is the most openly idealistic, and begins to fray at the edges the deeper down the rabbit hole they go. It’s also a remarkable physical performance from Ruffalo, emulating the man (who is still at the Globe, now as the editor of Spotlight) down to his facial tics.
Upstairs, John Slattery does his usual (excellent) thing as Ben Bradlee, Jr., and Liev Schrieber really shines, playing against type as the soft-spoken, deliberate new senior editor at the Globe. He uses his status as an outsider (both at the paper, and as a Jew) to nudge Spotlight towards what he sees are holes in the Globe’s original coverage of an local story that is only now going to court. And, despite that Spotlight usually gets to pick their own projects, Robinson (and Rezendes, especially) jump at it. In typical newspaper dramas, the “new editor” is a threat, or at least an obstacle. The absence of that kind of melodrama here is refreshing.
Instead, the script (co-written by Josh Singer) is focused on the work: the hard, all-consuming, shoe-leather stuff. We don’t have to waste any time on the Spotlight team “fighting for their story,” because once it gets handed to them, all that’s left to debate is when to hold and when to publish. These are people that work exceedingly well together, and it’s a pleasure to watch them do it. The name “Spotlight” carries a respect and a weight everywhere they go, which opens doors that might otherwise be closed — like to the cautious lawyer Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represents many of the abuse victims. They gather around conference calls and listen intently, scribbling into notepads. They pore over old references and clippings. Their offices feel lived-in, but not in the movie way where there’s just stacks of files everywhere and a busted fluorescent light in the ceiling. These are professionals.
Finally, McCarthy takes the crucial step of making the reporters just as devastated by what they learn as we are. Every one of them was raised Catholic; Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) still attends with her grandmother, though more out of obligation; Rezendes, while lapsed, had always expected — or hoped — to eventually return to the faith. And as they chase the story, they’re all too aware of the effect it will have not just on their city (especially in the wake of September 11th), but on the Church worldwide. After their original story, they would write 600 more: interviews with more victims and investigations into more priests, as well as the Cardinals in more cities, states, and countries that turned a blind eye for decades.
It’s impossible not to be confronted by all that evidence and have some kind of crisis of faith, but Spotlight the film isn’t looking to indict Christianity as a whole — instead, to illuminate how the institution might have fallen so far, and what might be done to save it. No one takes that charge more personally than Robinson himself, who realizes how his complacency two decades ago makes him just as culpable. “This is how it happens, isn’t it?” he asks a longtime friend who urges him to back off. “A guy leans on a guy, and people just look the other way.” The constant question isn’t how anyone could not know what was happening, but why so many kept silent. The answers are as varied as the individual cases. Money, shame, and the urge to keep things status quo are powerful forces, and, as McCarthy painfully lays out, even the best of us are not immune.
Spotlight is slow-burning story of systemic corruption, dogged reporting, and world-shaking revelations, but it’s told with humanity and grace. It’s about regret and redemption. It’s about religion and community. It’s low-key and grown-up, never devolving into histrionics, injecting unnecessary drama, or getting too comfortable with itself. And it’s the best film of 2015.