Open Road Films
Rated R for some language including sexual references.
Running time: 127 minutes.
Four stars out of four.
Journalists love to bitch about things, especially when it comes to movies about journalism. They never seem to get what we do right, from the newsroom vibe to the way we go about our work. Something is always off: the dialogue, the reporting process, even how we look. We’re never shlubby or disgruntled enough.
“Spotlight” gets all that right and so much more, from its big-picture drama to its smallest details to its casting in even the briefest of supporting roles. It vividly depicts what being a reporter is really like, from the doggedness to the drudgery, but it also offers a strong sense of place — not just in the newsroom but also in the city where the film is set: Boston. One of writer-director Tom McCarthy’s many great achievements here is the way he truly “gets” Boston: its insularity, its provincialism and the almost primal way in which its natives rush to protect their traditions and identity in the face of change.
The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning uncovering of the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal in 2002 was a defining moment for the city, and for the newspaper. It was tumultuous; it forced people to take a closer look at themselves, their personal faith and the faith so many of them had placed for generations in such a towering institution. McCarthy gets his arms around those big, emotionally complex notions with a narrative that’s lean and efficient. (He co-wrote the script with Josh Singer.) He knows he doesn’t need to beat you over the head with the importance of this story. The drama is real, and it’s bracing, and it emerges organically.
Like the inferior “Truth” from earlier this year, which was noisier in its chest thumping about the virtues of journalism, “Spotlight” is, at its core, a movie about chasing documents. It’s about waiting for court filings and digging through basement archives. This might not sound inherently cinematic, but McCarthy brings this story to life with a rich array of characters played by a uniformly excellent ensemble cast. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James make up the Globe’s Spotlight investigative team. They all spent time in the Globe newsroom with their real-life counterparts — Walter “Robby” Robinson, Mike Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll, respectively — and they all feel like fully fleshed-out people with back stories and perspectives that matter as they dig deeper into this troubling story and endure pressure to keep it under wraps.
The ever-reliable Liev Schreiber also stands out — albeit in a totally low-key way — as Marty Baron, the new Globe editor who lit a fire under the Spotlight team to investigate reports of child molestation within the Catholic Church, a story the paper had touched on only here and there by the time the film begins in 2001. Schreiber’s work here is beautifully understated, and he provides consistent humor in playing a man with zero sense of humor, but he’s also a forceful voice of reason with a critical outsider’s perspective. On the other end of the spectrum providing his own essential guidance, Stanley Tucci enjoys a deliciously showy role as the eccentric attorney who’d been quietly building a case against these pedophile priests for years.
“Spotlight” follows these reporters as they practice old-school, shoe-leather journalism tactics, pure and simple. They knock on doors, meet sources in coffee shops and furiously scribble in their notepads. This is one reason we in the media are loving this movie so unabashedly: It provides a poignant time capsule, a proud and nostalgic look back at a time before clickbait dictated journalistic decision-making. The montage of printing presses rolling, delivery trucks making the rounds and thick Sunday editions landing with a thud on front doorsteps may sound like a newspaper-movie cliche, but in “Spotlight” it truly is cause for celebration. This is the way it worked once, way back when, and it was a privilege to be a part of it.
But nostalgia alone isn’t enough — although costume designer Wendy Chuck completely nails the utilitarian and unflattering newsroom uniform of khakis and button-downs, which is always good for a chuckle. “Spotlight” works because it has a propulsive forward momentum. Every conversation matters — every revelation matters — and we feel as if we’re right alongside these reporters and editors with each new discovery they make. Individual scenes quietly buzz with anticipation as the team members meet with victims who had been reluctant to speak for years and piece together names, dates and parishes. And here’s where the supporting casting really gives the film a feeling of authenticity and substance; the filmmakers obviously took great care with even the tiniest of roles, because each voice is crucial in building a thoroughly illuminating and damning case.
Like the story being reported within the film, “Spotlight” is simultaneously emotional and clear-eyed. It’s an explosive yet necessary piece of journalism in and of itself. And it’s easily one of the year’s best.