Early on in Spotlight, Tom McCarthy’s incredible newspaper film about the exposure of child abuse running through the veins of the Catholic church in Boston and beyond, a local priest, addressing his open-faced congregation, explains, “knowledge is one thing, faith is another.” It is the crux of this film. Spotlight is a journalism film, first and foremost, the most complete of its kind in forty years, yet it deals with community. There is the community of The Boston Globe, and the Spotlight team who uncovers the sprawling scandal. There is the community of Boston, steeped in religion, the very community the Globe serves. And there is the seedy community of the archdiocese, one of the most powerful and disturbing organized crime rackets in all of human history. This film flows through these communities, all interacting with one another in a push and pull of morality, despair, sadness, and truth.
The Spotlight team at the Globe, a small team of investigative journalists, is led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, stellar as usual). The Globe is, like most newspapers in 2001, in a state of flux. The Internet is creeping into the physical media of the times, and a new editor is coming in from out of town. He is Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, subdued brilliance here), a Jewish outsider from South Florida who, when Robby meets him for the first time, is reading The Curse of The Bambino to try and get a feel for the city. Though he doesn’t care for baseball. It would be easy to expect this new editor, charged with trimming some fat from the Globe in these modern times, would be that character who gums up the works and impedes progress in the investigation into the Catholic church. Quite the opposite. Baron’s outsider status is what pushes the investigation forward, unwrapping the bigger story here. These Boston-bred reporters, ingrained in the city (still a very small town in a lot of ways, one character is careful to note) as much as in their jobs as journalists, are reluctant to dig deep into a scandal that has always existed as nothing more than a whisper. Better to turn the other way than upset their overly-Catholic readership. Baron thinks those readers will take note.
Reluctantly, Robby and his team being to investigate accusations against a priest here and a priest there, accused of molesting young boys and girls in their congregation. Only their investigation begins to expose a much larger threat, and as the threat grows larger, the accounts grow more intimate. A few priests grows into a dozen, then almost 90, touching the lives of these reporters. This is where Spotlight absolutely sings, as we pound the pavement in a world of reporting that is practically dead in 2015. Robby’s team includes Mike Rezendes, played by Mark Ruffalo as an energetic, quick-twitch nuisance in the best ways imaginable. Ruffalo has the market cornered on characters loaded with idiosyncrasies, and he is stellar here, worthy of awards. Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, who has a more personal local connection to the church. And there is Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, who has the greatest moment of personal reveal in the middle of the picture. Beyond the Spotlight team, the film is filled to the edges with the likes of John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, and all manner of character players who weave a wonderful tapestry of convincing, lived-in performances.
McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay is smart, quick, and doesn’t slow down to explain what would never be explained in real conversations. These are newspaper men and women who live these lives, so exposition is what needs to be said for these people, not the audience. Compared to Truth, another journalism film earlier this year that was rote and embarrassing to the profession, Spotlight is its photo negative. This world is real, un-glamorous and utilitarian. It is convincing and captivating.
As a narrative, Spotlight is all about reveals, and they are handled perfectly. Regarding the aforementioned personal reveal from Matt Carroll, it happens just as the scope of this abuse scandal is being uncovered by the team. Carroll is scanning a list of priests who have been “reassigned,” spots a name, and panics. He runs out his front door, down the street, and around the corner, where he stops and stares at a home mere feet from his front door. It is a home where two of these pedophiles still live, and it brings the immediacy of the situation home for Carroll, who ha children to consider. “Stay away from this house” his note says on the fridge. The scene is a wonderful moment in the film, shot with immediacy but not flash. None of this film is flashy, a perfect decision from Masanobu Takayanagi, who allows the actors and their settings room to breathe.
Despite its procedural structure and importance on the inner workings of journalism, Spotlight is not short on emotion. As the investigation begins to expand, the weight of the situation presses down hard on these reporters. There are tough moments with victims – “survivors,” as they are more aptly described since many of the children who are abused were felled by drugs, alcohol, and suicide later in life – as they describe their encounters. Each of the Spotlight reporters get their moment to consider the gravity of the story they are uncovering, and each of these moments pull us into the story even further. Churches and religious decorum loom large in the background more often than not, emphasizing even more the power the church has over the community.
An interesting thing happens two-thirds of the way in. 9/11 happens, and it subtly shifts the tone of the entire film. While the attacks are mentioned, shown on television, and subsequently noted, McCarthy never strays from his story too much. He simply changes the language of his characters. Now, nobody wants to hear about priests molesting children, because these people need their religion now more than ever. “This isn’t the time for such a story” is uttered, in so many words, more than once. It is a quiet shift in the film, but a bold transition at the same time. Just another reason why this is a masterpiece.
Perfect films are rare birds. Even the best films of any given year can show their warts. I believe Spotlight is as close to perfect as 2015 has gotten, and it is unquestionably the best film this year. It is a smart and fluid story, loaded top to bottom with wonderful and convincing performances. The true power of a film is its ability to be tactile, to stick in your gut and linger in your mind. 12 Years A Slave did that to me two years ago, and a film has not done that since. Until now.