Spotlight: A Sober Tale of Journalism Done Right

Tom McCarthy’s new film masterfully portrays The Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal in 2002.

Open Road Films

For much of its running time, Spotlight holds its audience at arm’s length. Its plot follows one of the most upsetting topics conceivable: Child abuse in the Catholic Church, and institutional efforts to cover up the crimes. Tom McCarthy’s film follows investigative reporters at The Boston Globe who helped uncover the story in 2002, and recreates their painstaking process with great attention to detail—the journalists gather information, pester sources, and take notes on first-hand accounts of molestation, but only at the very end of the film does the impact of it all fully hit them, and the viewer.

Like any good reporting job, Spotlight slowly builds momentum from nothing, gathering disparate bits of information into an emotional juggernaut of a story. But unlike most directors making films about journalists, McCarthy doesn’t indulge in the usual Hollywood claptrap to cast them as flawed superheroes. The central cast isn’t the motley crew of self-destructive drunks and grandstanders you’d usually see—this is a film about the methodical process of reporting, not the stirring heroism behind it, and at the end of the film, it’s the story itself, not the journalists’ personal achievements, that stands triumphant.

McCarthy has never been a visual wizard, and Spotlight lacks much flair in that regard. The film takes place largely in the stodgy offices of The Globe’s investigative team, and in coffee shops and lawyer’s offices around the city. But the movie returns the director and co-writer (he scripted with Josh Singer) to his greatest area of expertise: characters whose emotional arcs play out almost entirely under the surface. His best films—The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win—told quietly moving stories without leaning on dramatic outbursts. McCarthy’s most recent release, the more whimsical The Cobbler (starring Adam Sandler), was a catastrophe, but Spotlight returns him to solid ground.

The film boasts a fine ensemble: Michael Keaton plays Walter Robinson, the Spotlight team’s venerable editor, who commands the reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) under the eye of their managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and The Globe’s new editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who’s pushed them toward the unenviable task of investigating the diocese in a largely Catholic city.

Each character feels emblematic of a certain recognizable type of journalist without resorting to caricature. There’s Ruffalo’s live-wire agitator who seems disinterested in having a personal life, and Slattery’s hand-wringing deputy advising caution at every turn, and McAdams’s rigorous interviewer who exudes a warmth that gets strangers to spill their darkest stories to her. Keaton is the star, though, continuing the career renaissance that arguably began with his bravura work in last year’s Birdman. There was little subtlety to his last role, but as Robinson, Keaton projects his understated torment over the fact that his team could have tackled the story sooner but subconsciously avoided it.

But this isn’t a film that coasts on the work of its actors, who provide few moments of bombast. Nor is it a stern lecture on the evils of the Church, or the institutional powers that kept the voices of the abused silent for so many years, though it hardly shies away from those subjects. Spotlight instead shows how such a well-orchestrated secret can be uncovered: not through the will of one editor or reporter, but through the combined efforts of a well-run, well-staffed journalistic organ not beholden to moneyed interests, and with enough will to push past any political or social pressures.

Which might make the film sound like a manifesto, but Spotlight’s lack of polemic makes the message that much clearer. Ironically, on the fifth season of HBO’s The Wire, McCarthy (who also acts from time to time) played a fictional Baltimore Sun reporter who won a Pulitzer Prize by exaggerating his reporting on various city issues. The show’s creator David Simon seemed to be railing against perceived enemies of real journalism by creating this straw-man character, and the story consequently fell flat. But by quietly celebrating the work of The Globe’s reporters, McCarthy makes a far more consequential argument for the value of smart reporting and robust local newspapers.

There is perhaps a strange timewarp quality to Spotlight: It presents a Boston Globe recently acquired by The New York Times, not yet sweating layoffs and buyouts, as it and so many papers nationwide have weathered in recent years. But McCarthy does well not to turn his story into a larger rant on the state of modern journalism. The journalists’ work speaks for itself, and the film succeeds by letting it stand on those merits.