In 2002, Boston Globe broke the story of Catholic priests sexually abusing children in its local neighborhoods, and exposed the Church and legal system for covering up these transgressions. Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight, starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery, follows members of Boston Globe’s investigative team as they uncover the Boston priests’ scandal whose effects rippled throughout the country and all the way to the Vatican. McCarthy, coming off of the worst received picture of his career in The Cobbler last year, makes his best film yet as writer and director of Spotlight. Rather than trumping up the action or embellishing the details, McCarthy makes a thriller out of the journalistic process.
Beginning with the arrival of new editor Marty Barron, a Jewish man in a predominately Catholic community, the film shows him using an outsider’s eye to invigorate the paper’s “spotlight” team. Real life investigative journalists Michael Rezendes, Walter Robinson, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll are portrayed as determined professionals rather than the romantic notion movies sometimes have of journalists as dogged crusaders. One of the film’s pleasures is the intelligence of the characters building a compelling drama out of 2 hours of conversation. They work through and against the legal red tape that reveals itself gradually as a story unto itself-the Archdiocese, lawyers, and judges creating an environment of secrets and indifference.
Like a great piece of reporting, this film knows its material inside and out, and tells the story without frills or any superfluous detail. The actors, all looking older than we are accustomed to seeing them, are uniformly excellent. With no big “acting” scenes-no crying, no alcoholic breakdowns, no screaming matches, no speech impediments, no backstories- Spotlight might have the best ensemble performance of the year. No actor stands out from the rest, but that is not a negative. In fact, it is one of the film’s real strengths. Like the reporters and editors and lawyers that broke this case, the actors all work together here as a team and the team is perfect.
If you’re a Catholic and nervous about seeing the film, it is interesting to hear that the new Cardinal of the Archdiocese of Boston, Sean O’Malley, praised the film in talking with the Boston Globe.
The film has a weakness, but it goes hand in hand with its strength. Those seeking great artistic triumphs shouldn’t look to Spotlight. It takes no great artistic chances. It has a story to tell, and it’s an important one. Time will tell if this film lasts and can stand with the likes of All the Presidents Men and Zodiac. But that Spotlight achieves affect without any stylistic effects is an accomplishment. To borrow an expression from Mark Twain, Spotlight is a good story, well told.