Film has always been a great medium for exploring timely, often controversial subjects. This season has been full of films focusing upon a wide range of topics from the 2008 financial crisis (The Big Short) to transgender and women’s rights (The Danish Girl and Suffragette). It seems fitting that Spotlight should number among these films though it does not explore the corruption of law, Wall Street, or historical discrimination, instead it sets its sights squarely upon religion, specifically in modern America. Spotlight tells the true story of how a team of journalists from The Boston Globe uncovered a massive child molestation scandal in the Catholic Church that started with their local archdiocese and went on to implicate some of the Church’s highest ranks.
The story begins in 2001 when The Boston Globe hired a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). A Jewish transplant from Miami, Baron has a hard time ingratiating himself into the largely Irish Catholic, born-and-raised ranks of most of the Globe’s employees; his inscrutable, matter-of-fact demeanor also doesn’t help him make many friends. Yet through his leadership, Baron is able to reorient the direction of the paper. One of the Globe’s oldest, most respected teams is a group of investigative journalists called, “Spotlight.” Fresh off a relatively successful story and hungry for another lead, Baron directs the Spotlight team to investigate a series of pedophilia allegations against a local priest, the main focus of the story being that a lawyer stated the local Cardinal knew what the priest was doing, but did nothing to stop it. Though initially reluctant to pursue the story, Spotlight’s leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is eventually persuaded by Baron to commit his team to its investigation. Together with dogged investigators Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Robinson begins to peel back one of the ugliest cover-ups in American history, in which religious indoctrination created an environment of fear and denial that led to the molestation of thousands of children who would carry the scars of their trauma for years to come.
Spotlight is not an easy film to watch. This is not because it is explicit, rather it uses the power of ideas to disturb, building the dread and disgust of the audience with each revelation through razor-sharp dialogue, tight pacing, and constant reiteration that – yes – this is a true story. Director Tom McCarthy, along with writer Josh Singer, have crafted a work of startling simplicity, one that uses realistic dialogue to create a narrative pull that rivals the best fictional thrillers. Yet the film’s strength is how grounded it is, taking place in the streets of Boston and the buzzing, fluorescent-light filled rooms of cluttered offices; through it all there is never a hint of artifice. This can be attributed to McCarthy’s almost documentarian approach to his direction (aided by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi), which frames our world in a way that is aesthetically pleasing and symbolically rich, yet never distracting from the human drama playing out on screen.
The rest of Spotlight’s success can be attributed to its actors. Michael Keaton continues his impressive career rebirth with another great performance; his Robby is a practical man, hard-edged and believably determined in his pursuit, yet not without shades of doubt and vulnerability. This performance, on top of his incredible turn in last year’s Birdman, make me even more excited to see what he does next. Rachel McAdams makes a welcome return to drama, instilling her character Sacha with the type of grit and resolve necessary to make it as an investigative journalist; she’s a no-nonsense woman whose personal life suffers because of her dedication to the story and McAdams makes you see the depth of her commitment to justice. Comparably, Mark Ruffalo (is this guy ever bad in anything?) plays Mike Rezendes: a manic, hot-headed journalist whose incredulous outrage at the entire situation pushes him to pursue each and every lead. Like Sacha, his personal life has also suffered because of how passionately he cares about the victims of those in his stories and Ruffalo is able to show Rezendes’ quirks and anxious qualities without ever being reductive; more than anyone else, Rezendes seems the hero of the piece: singular in his pursuit, undoubting in his resolve. Rounding out the main cast is the aforementioned Liev Schreiber (still the best part about X-Men: Origins, Wolverine). Schreiber does admirable work; his character Marty is a soft-spoken leader with a noble heart, unapologetic in his oddness and wholly dedicated to bringing important news to the public. Schreiber carries a palpable weight and Marty’s transformation from pariah to someone everyone respects at the Globe is another strong aspect of an already stellar film.
Beyond the main cast, the film is peppered with good performances, the standout of which being the Tucc (pronounced “Tooch”) also known as film and stage actor, Stanley Tucci. The Tucc is definitely loose in this movie, playing lawyer Mitchell Garabedian. Eccentric and over-worked, Garabedian nevertheless was the first to try and take legal action against the Church in regard to the child molestation allegations. Denied at nearly every turn, Garabedian is a beleaguered veteran by the time the Spotlight team gets in touch with him. He’s tired and disgusted with corruption of the Church, but he will not and cannot stop while children continue to be harmed and it is in this area that the Tucc excels, making Garabedian memorable and believable in a role that could easily have been one-note or over the top.
Boasting top-notch direction, writing, acting, and a score by legendary composer Howard Shore (The Lord of the Rings, A History of Violence), Spotlight is easily one of the best films I have seen in recent memory. Not only does it explore a topic worthy of thought, but it does so with the skill and grace necessary to convey the magnitude of the events displayed on screen. It is impossible to see this film and not come out changed and hopefully more thoughtful and tentative about the institutions in which we place our trust. Fear and denial are powerful tools to those that would do us harm; films like Spotlight are a reminder of just how potent a medium film can be for shining a light upon the darkest parts of humanity and, hopefully, inspiring change.