In the opening scenes of Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, reporters and editors discuss the Boston Globe’s value as a “local paper.” Local papers cover issues that national papers do not. They focus on stories that are important to the community – that the people who live and work in the area care about. Although the scandal at the heart of Spotlight – the decades-long cover-up of predatory priests by the Catholic Church – went far beyond the boundaries of Boston, this specificity is a recurring theme throughout Spotlight.
Journalism movies like Spotlight are tricky to pull off because audiences often know how the story ends. The presses are stopped, Nixon resigns, The New Republic exposes Stephen Glass as a fraud. Spotlight is, also, challenged by the fact that, in the decade since the Globe broke the story, a year has rarely passed without a similar scandal playing out all over again. The film rises to meet these challenges. We may know the ending, sure — but we don’t know how the Globe‘s investigative reporting division (the Spotlight team) got there. McCarthy, Singer, and an ensemble cast led Michael Keaton propel audiences through each step of shoe-leather reporting – right down the spreadsheets (This may be the rare movie that makes data entry suspenseful). There’s not a scene in the movie that feels out of place — even what seems like a detour to briefly touch upon 9/11 is quickly pivoted back to how the news coverage of that event affects the Spotlight investigation.
A film set in newsrooms in the early 21st century might not seem particularly cinematic, but McCarthy, working with cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi, finds ways to keep your attention. He places the characters in the frame so that they’re literally surrounded — by the darkness of research rooms, the grey tones of the Spotlight office, the faded bronze of courts and the sharp glass of corporate boardrooms. This is further emphasized when characters venture outside – there always seems to be a church in the frame, or just around the corner. As the investigation continues, McCarthy often lets the details creep into frame, as that spreadsheet grows to cover one wall of the Spotlight offices. It adds to the sense that this investigation is as all-consuming as the church’s presence in Boston. Takayanagi was the cinematographer on Black Mass, and the city he presents here is far less of a caricature. (I don’t think I spotted a single bagpipe, although a scene does take place at a Sawx game.)
Although the film at times resembles a very good episode of procedural television, it expects you to keep up with a litany of names and faces, details and dates, victims and their victimizers. Those details, those dates, add up as Spotlight plays out, and it’s in that cumulative effect that Spotlight becomes something truly special. By returning to the position the Church had in Boston, in the lives of all of its characters, Spotlight is one of the first fiction films to depict why these scandals were — and remain — so devastating for both their victims and the church’s devoted parishioners. Late in the film, Mark Ruffalo, as reporter Michael Renzendes, delivers a monologue describing how although he — like all the Spotlight team — is a lapsed Catholic, he always hoped one day he might want to go back to Mass. His investigation has robbed him of that, and I suspect there’s more than one lapsed Catholic who will walk out of Spotlight feeling the same way. This theme continues through the final moments of the film, and the cumulative effect is as powerful on the audience as it is on the reporters. The last thirty seconds of this movie are some of the most devastating I’ve seen this year.
That’s not to say that the film’s narrative boils down to “church good, reporters bad.” Throughout the investigation, the reporters have to confront their own complicity in looking the other way for decades — whether it’s burying a story or choosing not to devote the resources to it. The nuance on display here is rare for movies like this. (Nuance is a good way to describe Howard Shore’s low-key but wonderful score, more akin to his work with Jonathan Demme than Peter Jackson.)
Nuance also applies to the many great performances throughout Spotlight, and this is a movie loaded with familiar faces and fantastic actors. Keaton plays Spotlight editor/”player coach” Walter “Robby” Robertson. He attacks the role with a fierce, calculating intelligence as he tries to outmaneuver both the Church and rival papers. He’s supported by actors like Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci. All are excellent, particularly Ruffalo, who has the most showy role – and one that will probably get him another nomination for Best Supporting Actor. Of special note in the cast are Liev Schreiber as Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron and Brian d’Arcy James as Spotlight reporter Matt Carroll. Baron is an outsider to Boston, shy and uncomfortable with authority, but Schreiber brings a low-key stillness to the part that adds to the Globe’s moral authority. James, best known as a theater actor (he played Shrek in Shrek the Musical), rocks a great mustache and delivers a break-out performance full of uncertainty and subtle anger. It also helps that he gets one of the funnier moments in the movie.
Yes, you wouldn’t think that a movie about child molesting priests could be funny, but it is, dark in spots and light and others, with even a few jokes for the journalism nerds in the audience. (There’s a third-act joke by Schreiber that will make editors and English teachers alike cackle.) It’s yet another surprise in what is a powerful picture for adults. Although it’s cliche to complain how “they don’t make them like this anymore,” the assured filmmaking on display in Spotlight is truly special. This is one of the best journalism movies ever made, making a powerful case for the continuing importance of local, community reporting. The Spotlight team broke a Boston story whose effects were felt all the way to the Vatican. In telling their story, Tom McCarthy and his team have made one of the best pictures of 2015. It is not to be missed.
Brendan M. Leonard is a writer living in New York with his wife and dog. You can follow him @brendanmleonard.