This year’s “surprise” best picture winner is a lovingly modest feature that tells the story of one of the most important journalistic exposes in history. The story, by now a secret to no one, is of the Spotlight team of journalists at the Boston Globe that in early 2002 brought to light the full scope of the Catholic priest sex scandal. Written and directed by actor-turned-filmmaker Thomas McCarthy, Spotlight is both aided and tarnished by its primary quality: modesty. Where it would be tempting to really celebrate these investigative journalists as heroes, the film wisely takes a less celebratory approach that while setting a perfect, realistic tone, also made it feel lacking to this viewer in at least my initial viewing.
As the Spotlight opens, we see a goodbye party for a long-time editor of the Globe. Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton) gives a speech that celebrates his old, retiring friend, but also raises some questions about who is stepping in to replace him and some other higher ups. Is the newspaper that has long been a love letter to Boston and its residences going to lose the authenticity that makes it so vital to its readers? That is the question as the spotlight team leaves the party and returns to their office, which feels more like a den in the basement than what we are used to seeing in a newspaper office.
The Spotlight team consists of only four people: Robbie, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James). As we learn in a private conversation between Robbie and his old friend’s replacement, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the Spotlight crew produces few articles. They spend sometimes as much as a year or two researching before pushing their findings public. And much of that time is spent looking for the next subject for them to tackle. You can tell from this scene that Robbie is a little concerned that the new man upstairs may or may not understand the value of this.
At one of the first meetings the full paper has with Baron, he decides not to scrap or tarnish the Spotlight team in any way, but give them a nudge in the direction of what he thinks might be a good story. The Globe and other papers have already published a story about a priest named Goeghen who allegedly molested eighty children before getting caught. Since he has already been exposed, it isn’t immediately obvious that the story needs to be dug further. But everyone knows that the church must have known about this. And since we have all read or heard of other instances of child molestation amongst Catholic priests specifically, Baron seeks to discover just how far the cover-ups go.
Robbie is willing to take a look at this with his team, but you can tell he isn’t sold on the idea. It isn’t explicitly stated, but the Globe is an abnormally cherished newspaper within Boston. It’s almost like the New York Times, where Baron has just moved from. Pushing such an upsetting story to Catholics, in a city that is almost exclusively Catholics may affect the city’s loving relationship with the paper. Of the team, only Rezendes is immediately behind the idea. But it doesn’t take long for them to dig up enough information to make the urgency and scope of the story apparent to the entire team.
The film takes a unique approach of not really giving an arc to any individual character. Typically this really bothers me. But this film has reason to thematically focus on the idea of the community. There is a great scene with one of the first victims they meet with to discuss the situation in which the victim says “if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to molest a child.” This is the heart of Spotlight. And its heart is absolutely in the right place.
This is an ensemble piece in which there is no obvious main character. The one with the most screen time is either Ruffalo or Keaton. But time is almost equally allotted amongst the team and everyone has scenes by themselves or alone with victims or family members. This emphasizes the community component of the film.
But where this really gets hit home in Spotlight is with a lawyer named Eric Macliesh (Billy Crudup) who handles a lot of the cases for the molested victims. His work is so worthless that it almost comes across as him helping the church. But to his credit, he did at one point in his life try to submit information to the Globe and it either got lost in the shuffle or was blatantly ignored.
Then later, Robbie is pushing for a friend he has on the other side of the aisle, an insider of the church that if he gets on record to back the story, will astronomically increase the credibility of their claims. The friend is all out offended that Robbie would come into his home and make such accusations against him. He defends himself saying “I was doing my job.” This is an excuse that can be applied to literally everyone. The church new these priests were raping children and they just move them from parish to parish without any punishment what-so-ever. The lawyers did not go nearly far enough to appropriately fight on the behalf of the victims. The press all but ignored the information sent to them year in and year out. And the rest of the community didn’t do a damn thing either. It is so engrained in all of us, specifically in Boston, that the Catholic Church is a positive force in the world. Not until the full extent of the controversy was exposed did anyone see that nothing could justify this. And even that is not good enough of an excuse.
I’ve now seen Spotlight three times. It wasn’t until the third go round that I was sold on the scene in which Robbie gets his friend within the church to come on board. But I now realize that what Robbie says that tides him over is admitting that he is just as guilty for not bringing this to the light sooner. Just a couple of scenes later we learn that when Macliesh sent reports of twenty priests to the Globe, it was Robbie personally who at the time would have received the information and chosen to pass. When you put those two moments together, it really sings and resonates with the first victim’s claim that this is about the whole damn village.
So I am really warming up to this film. I love that it doesn’t try to galvanize the journalists and instead opts to let their leader recognize that he is just as much at fault as everyone else. This modest approach, along with restrained direction and ensemble orientation of the film left me feeling underwhelmed at first, as if the film somehow wasn’t lending enough weight to the subject. But after a few more viewings I am beginning to accept that this is the best way to present the story at both a narrative and thematic level.
The highlight of Spotlight though, is the acting. The aforementioned team of Keaton, McAdams, Ruffalo, and Schreiber are all incredible. But it is also worth bringing up Stanley Tucci (Julie and Julia) who plays an Armenian lawyer. Together they really did earn that Screen Actor’s Guild ensemble cast award.
Although I am enjoying Spotlight more and more with each subsequent viewing, I still consider Thomas McCarthy’s finest work to date to be Win Win. Along with The Station Agent, McCarthy is forming a career marked by small-scale stories of unlikely heroes. I hope that his next project, whatever that may be, continues on this track while avoiding the pitfall that is Adam Sandler, the star of his previous film The Cobbler.