Spotlight is a well-crafted and thoughtful investigative journalism docudrama that is buoyed by great performances.
Spotlight takes place in 2001, as the Boston Globe welcomes a new editor in Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber): a journalist who, unlike a significant chunk of the Globe‘s staff, is neither Catholic nor grew up in the Boston area. Baron recruits veteran Globe reporter/editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his Spotlight team – a group of Globe reporters who specialize in long-term investigations – to examine allegations that local Catholic priests molested children within their districts, only for the Church’s lawyers and Boston Archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), to cover up the incidents, lest it lead to a larger scandal.
However, as Robinson and his Spotlight team – Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – investigate the matter further, it gradually becomes clear that there’s not only much more to this story than the reporters initially thought, but that related corruption within the Catholic Church may well extend far beyond the reaches of Boston. Through it all, though, Robinson and his team must wrestle with the question: how could a scandal this massive (and horrible) have been kept under wraps for so long?
Spotlight, which director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor, Win Win) co-wrote with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), brings the true story of the Boston Globe‘s coverage of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal to life on the big screen as a smart and engaging docudrama. The movie’s primary focus is the subject of investigative journalism and the responsibilities that come with it; as such, its narrative spends less time on exploring the lives of the Spotlight team and more time on their hunt to learn how the Catholic Church was able to keep the scandal a secret for so long. The final result is an All the President’s Men-esque investigative drama that paints a story in deep shades of grey – looking at how even the Boston Globe may have been complicit in the sex abuse coverup, in the process.
The Spotlight script by McCarthy and Singer works by skipping such “Oscar bait” elements as preachy monologues (save for one noteworthy instance) or heavy-handed dramatic plot beats in favor of taking a more clinical, but at the same time compassionate, look at the facts and figures involved in the story at hand. Downside is, Spotlight ends up being a relatively dry affair – one that doesn’t have the cross-over appeal of previous notable true story-based exposes on corruption within larger institutions (think Michael Mann’s The Insider). Beyond that, a number of situations and characters portrayed in the film are stereotypical in their nature; meaning, Spotlight falls short when it comes to putting a fresh spin on certain tropes of the journalist investigation sub-genre.
From a directorial standpoint, McCarthy avoids incorporating stylistic flourishes into Spotlight, instead relying on a polished, but at the same time straight-forward approach to staging the film’s proceedings. McCarthy and Spotlight cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi (Silver Linings Playbook, Black Mass) in turn rely on unobtrusive camera movement and filming techniques while staging many an information-dense conversation between the film’s various characters. Spotlight is dialogue-heavy as a result, but it still has enough cinematic flavor to avoid feeling like recorded theater – as McCarthy and his crew vary things as much as possible, by always having the actors and/or the camera move in a fashion that feels organic to any given scene, while at the same time changing the backdrops for the many conversations that happen (in offices, during baseball games, etc.).
Spotlight is also successful at not just compressing time (given the duration of the eponymous team’s investigation of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal), but also making the often tedious and nose to the grindstone nature of the journalistic profession as compelling to watch in movie form as possible. McCarthy and editor Tom McArdle (the director’s longtime collaborator) carefully use montages in order to condense the least interesting aspects of the reporters’ work (going through paper files/documents, interviewing locals door to door), but handle the one-on-one interactions between characters in longer takes; this, in turn, keeps the pace tight and allows the film’s numerous performances enough room to breathe.
While a number of the Spotlight characters fall into stereotype categories (the no-nonsense veteran, the workaholic, etc), as mentioned before, the film is elevated by unanimous strong performances from the cast. Heavy-hitters like Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, and Schreiber all deliver the quality of work that people have come to expect from them as character actors, as does d’Arcy James (Smash). Supporting players John Slattery (Mad Men), Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games), Billy Crudup (The Stanford Prison Experiment), and Jamey Sheridan (Homeland) deliver solid performances of their own, favoring subtle and emotionally-grounded acting styles over more grand gesturing, like the main cast. (Some may also recognize McCarthy’s The Visitor star, Richard Jenkins, in a key voice-only role for Spotlight.)
When all is said and done, Spotlight is a well-crafted and thoughtful investigative docudrama that is buoyed by great performances. The film’s approach may be too clinical for some, though others will appreciate how McCarthy and his collaborators use this story to examine worthwhile questions about the importance of journalism (as well as journalistic integrity) in a manner that is considerate, without also being ham-fisted. Those in the mood for a smart adult drama – and/or those who are interested in checking out a film that looks to be an awards-season favorite – will certainly want to give Spotlight a look in theaters.
Spotlight is now playing in U.S. theaters. It is 128 minutes long and is Rated R for some language including sexual references.
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