For the second time this fall, the city of Boston has become the center of attention for a true crime prestige picture. Scott Cooper’s Black Mass focused on the life of infamous crime boss Whitey Bulger in a sensational (and often overly garish) fashion, rarely exciting throughout its overstuffed mob tale. Now Tom McCarthy joins the fray with Spotlight, the story of Boston Globe reporters who uncovered decades of institutionalized sexual abuse of children within the Catholic church of Boston and its surrounding areas. With an all-star cast and awards buzz mounting, McCarthy’s journalistic procedural looks poised to be the film that lasts in the minds of its audience.
Spotlight is so named for the small team at the Boston Globe dedicated to long-term investigative research of stories that pique their interest and would not be done justice by more cursory journalism. Led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carrol (Brian D’arcy James) are in the midst of deciding on a new project when they are assigned a story by the Globe’s new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) about a Boston priest charged with sex abuse that seems to have gotten a short shrift in the paper. As the team sets to work, they soon find that the story is much bigger, quickly expanding from one priest to twenty to ninety with a long legacy of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) covering for them by shifting them to new parishes. Despite misgivings from other reporters and editors at the Globe (including John Slattery) and an unctuous lawyer who had worked with the church on settlements in the past (Billy Crudup), the Spotlight team works tirelessly as the scope of the cover-up grows.
Spotlight operates on the same axis as Alan J. Pakula’s Best Picture nominated classic All the President’s Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac, films dedicated to historical events from the perspective of the journalists who covered them. It dives deep into procedure, its battles waged in board rooms and offices, over microfilm and dusty books. All the President’s Men took on the leader of the free world and Zodiac an unidentified killer, but somehow Spotlight’s enemy seems to loom larger. Irish Catholics and Boston have been linked in pop culture for about as long as the latter has existed, and the film wastes little time establishing impunity with which the church is free to act. McCarthy establishes this not only with the content of the film, but also through judiciously chosen establishing shots of city streets with massive church edifices looming in the background, a constant presence and vaguely insidious threat.
Films like Spotlight heavily rely on the strength of their cast in order to make the nitty-gritty of the investigation resonate. McCarthy has gathered quite a few familiar faces here, with Keaton and Ruffalo most at the fore of a strong ensemble. Ruffalo is particularly mannered in his accent and movements, though he never entirely goes off the deep end and remains consistent throughout. Everyone has their moment to shine, with Liev Schreiber arguably standing out the most. He has a sort of anti-energy that works in a very particular way, underplaying his dialogue in order to both convey that he is the smartest guy in the room and be entirely unassuming about it. As the new boss in the office, he could easily wield bravado and bluster to make his points, but the softer edge can often be more effective. It’s one of Schreiber’s quieter performances of his career, and demonstrates another trick in his playbook. Quality is present up and down the cast list, from Stanley Tucci’s delightfully manic and untrusting lawyer representing over 80 abused children to Crudup’s other side of the coin (though his loyalties may not be so straightforward) to a menagerie of colorful denizens of the Globe that pop up from time to time. It all combines to make the Boston of Spotlight feel like a living, breathing world, a necessity for a film with such a delicate true to life subject.
The script of Spotlight, from McCarthy and Josh Singer, ramps up confidently, ending on a high note. The aftermath of the release of the article is handled extremely well; McCarthy does not dilute the magnitude of the revelation with fanfare or hagiography (it easily could have jumped forward to the paper winning the Pulitzer, Keaton’s smiling face holding a trophy for his efforts), rather focusing in on the reactions of the individuals involved. Most critically, and just like All the President’s Men and Zodiac, this film is a case of a profoundly interesting story told with conviction and grace. McCarthy does not try to do too much with his subject matter, nor does he trivialize it. He strikes the balance that is necessary for the sort of movie that announces itself as a true story before it begins, and (The Cobbler misstep aside) continues his trend as a director to watch alongside films like Win Win and The Station Agent. It is easy to forget the power and influence of newspapers as it has declined so steeply barely a decade after the article was published, but a film like Spotlight is a wonderful reminder of the unique place print media has in culture.