One of the markers of a great dramatic film is when it is able to engage with you on an important topic, and make you think about that topic long after the movie is finished. Spotlight, the latest movie from director Thomas McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win), does exactly that, focusing on the widespread sexual molestation of children by Catholic clergy members, and the subsequent cover up by the Catholic Church.
Based on true events, Spotlight follows the efforts of a group of journalists working for the Boston Globe, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), who form the Spotlight section, specializing in long-term investigations of important topics relating to the city. In 2001, a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), joins the team and convinces them to start investigating cases of child molestation by priests of various Catholic Boston parishes. As the journalists, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), follow leads and build up evidence, they discover that this isn’t an anomaly, and that the story not only implicates various other city institutions but is also global in scale, going all the way to the Vatican.
Spotlight is definitely not for everyone, as the movie pretty much consists of long interview scenes, newsroom conversations in which a lot of statistical information and names are dumped on the audience as well as sequences in which the characters research through documents and files, with only a few scenes depicting the journalists’ private lives added in to give each character more depth. It’s definitely not the type of movie for audiences looking for action and thrills, which is a shame because Spotlight is one of the best crafted and most important films to be released this year and is a must see for anyone who is interested in the process of investigative journalism. The film moves at a fast pace, and is so exciting at times you could almost call it a thriller. This is in large part due to the combined efforts of the expert editing, Howard Shore’s fantastic piano heavy score and the well written script by McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer.
Spotlight intentionally restrains itself from over-dramatizing the true events in order to deliver as unbiased an account as possible. However, that doesn’t mean that Spotlight doesn’t try to show the emotional impact caused by the offending clergy members. In fact, the best and most difficult to watch moments of the movie are the interviews the reporters have with the victims of sexual abuse. They’re as chilling to listen to as they are illuminating, and are sure to make your blood boil with fury at the fact that something like this happened, and in fact, is still happening today. There is also a haunting scene in which Rachel McAdams’ character talks to a priest who freely admits to having molested children, reasoning that he did it because it was done to him when he was a child, further demonstrating how far back this corruption goes. This is also one of the rare occasions where the movie attempts to show us the Church’s perspective on the matter. Yet, even though Spotlight is directly targeting the Church, it also makes it clear that the journalists are not blameless either, having all but completely ignored these allegations up until this investigation. There is a great reveal about Michael Keaton’s character towards the end that not only shows us the extent of his feelings about the investigations, but also demonstrates the imperfections of the institution of journalism.
The city of Boston is a character in itself, as Spotlight shows the corruption that is present in the established systems of society, systems that have existed for hundreds of years and have become integral parts of society. Boston is deeply rooted in Catholicism, which fosters a society that fears any ill words against their faith, so much so that citizens not only keep quiet, but in fact help to cover up any infractions committed by the Church. It is this environment that the Spotlight investigators must navigate, and it makes every interaction seem that much tensor and their task that much more difficult. Even the journalists’ lives are affected by these revelations, with Rachel McAdams’ character having to deal with her deeply religious grandmother, or Michael Keaton’s character discovering that his old high school employed one of the accused priests as a coach.
The cast here is superb, with every actor pulling their weight and adding layers of authenticity into the characters. No one is overacting, and each actor disappears into their role. Michael Keaton is keeping up the momentum he built off of last year’s Birdman, perfectly encapsulating the conflicted nature of Robbie Robinson and the moral tribulations he faces while pursuing the story. Mark Ruffalo is also great, proving that he is a much better actor than The Avengers movies give him credit for. He is the reporter who is the most eager to see this scandal be revealed to the public, and has a great moment where he goes off on his fellow reporters for wanting to wait to publish the story. Rachel McAdams is also very well used, proving once more that she is more than just a romantic lead. John Slattery is a delight for the little time he’s on screen, basically playing his character of Roger Sterling from Mad Men in all but name. Even Stanley Tucci makes a splash as a lawyer who has been trying to help the victims get compensated for what they went through, succeeding only in getting them meager settlements and a cold shoulder from the Church.
There’s no denying that Spotlight is a difficult movie to get through, both because of the tough subject matter and dense storytelling, but it is worth the effort. The Oscar movie season is revving up and I have no doubt that Spotlight will be a big contender in the awards race. The great cast, brilliant editing, score and script as well as the fascinating in-depth look at the process of investigative journalism make this an immersive experience. It manages to educate the audience while never seeming dry or boring, and also functions as a loving look back at the glory days of printed news, a now all but extinct industry. But more than anything, Spotlight engages you in a very important conversation that will make you furious, sad and hopeful all at once. You will be thinking about Spotlight long after you finish watching it, and that is exactly what the movie wants.
Final Grade: 9.5/10