SPOTLIGHT Review: Deliver Us From Evil
All the President’s Men is an important film to me as it’s one of the first “serious films” I remember renting as a young teen, when more and more catalogue titles became available on VHS during the ascension of the home video market in the 1980s. That film is the reason why, to this day, when I buy an actual print newspaper that isn’t my hometown paper, I buy The Washington Post – it’s the newspaper of Watergate, and of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and of Ben Bradlee. Fast-forward thirty years and thousands of movie screenings later and I once again find myself enthralled by another film about real-life newspaper investigative journalism … and another Bradlee is involved.
That film is Spotlight, whose story opens in the summer of 2001 when editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), fresh from Miami, joins The Boston Globe and meets his editorial staff, including Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Robby is the leader of a special team on the paper known as “Spotlight.” Unlike other reporters, the members of the Spotlight team – Robby, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – perform longer and deeper investigations into much larger stories. Baron, who is expected to cut staff as a response to dwindling interest in print media (during the rise of the Internet), takes Spotlight off an existing story and directs them to look into allegations of sexual misconduct perpetrated against children by priests in the Boston Catholic community. What starts with allegations against one priest grows into an investigation of dozens of clergymen, as well as an examination of the Church’s knowledge of the atrocities and how those atrocities may have been covered up for decades by Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). Robby and his team, with oversight by Robby’s immediate boss, editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), are stunned by what they find, which goes beyond the rape of innocent children.
As journalism-based procedurals go, Spotlight is superb thanks in large part to its phenomenal cast. While there is no single star in this ensemble, it’s hard not to call Ruffalo the MVP. He disappears into the role of a reporter who has great fire and passion, who has masterful investigative skills, and whose marriage is suffering because of it all. What’s evident early on is how excited Rezendes is to investigate the case. While others – all Boston born-and-raised – seem a little hesitant given the scope, and especially the complexity, of the case, Rezendes begs for the challenge. He’s a seasoned veteran with the enthusiasm of a cub reporter looking to make his mark.
Also excellent is Keaton as the leader of the team. His character is in a unique spot of having to manage down, manage up, and manage himself, as he has a tie to the story no one realizes (and it isn’t what you think). Sneaky-good, though, is Schreiber. In a film where each member of the cast has moments to shine, all of his moments are quiet and subdued, but so very impactful. If this cast were a band, everyone else would get their solos while Schreiber lays down a bass line that keeps them all anchored. Other great character actors with key roles include Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Paul Guilfoyle. From a casting perspective, it’s an embarrassment of riches.
The procedural aspect also shines thanks to director Tom McCarthy (who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer). It isn’t just the way the story gradually unfolds, with bits of information leading to greater bits of information until a big moment occurs, it’s the importance of the hard work McCarthy gives great attention to. In this, the Google era, watching people pull old newspapers clips, dig through musty old basement records, and transcribe data from books into what looks like Lotus 123, should be an absolute bore. But in McCarthy’s hands, it’s a fascinating study of a bygone era of roll-up-your-sleeves investigation performed by people whose passion for what they do shines in even the most mundane of tasks. Like Rezendes, McCarthy takes on this challenge directly and eagerly, reveling in these scenes instead of offering some obligatory montage and moving on to (seemingly) more interesting things like beating the pavement and questioning people. There’s plenty of that, too, but to a well-measured degree.
While making research look sexy, McCarthy is also wise to avoid the temptation of sensationalism. For as deplorable as it is, child molestation, especially perpetrated by a collective that is held to a higher standard, can invite a late local news approach to storytelling. Not here. While the entire story sits on a foundation of horror, that horror is never exploited. McCarthy, (again) not unlike his journalist characters, presents the facts, deals with the dicier details maturely, and constructs his story accordingly.
Most impressive about McCarthy’s work here is how he is able to present a host of facets to the story and make it all so cohesive. Boston is a big city but the close-knit community makes it more like a small town, and either you belong (Spotlight’s core staff are Catholic and local to the city) or you don’t (Baron is not from Boston, has no ties to the city, and is Jewish). The influence of the Church over political, judicial, and yes, even journalistic interests is so strong, many people involved turn a blind eye to the church’s culpability (at best), or deny it (at worst), with several doing so behind the shield of “I was doing my job.” (The importance of the Catholic Church to Boston is by far the strongest theme in the film). It even looks hard at the Globe‘s unknowing involvement in the years prior to this investigation.
At the end of Spotlight, I cried. A small part of that is probably because, as a Catholic, I carry the burden of being affiliated with an organization that systematically covered up, and in the process enabled the continuation of, heinous crimes against children. But I think the larger part of my breakdown was born of the storytelling itself. The film demands – and earns – such an emotional investment, once the Sunday edition carrying the front-page, above-the-fold story hits the streets at the end of the film, there is an overwhelming sense of relief that makes a strong emotional response unstoppable. That’s five-star filmmaking.