Great investigative journalism films are hard to come by. This is partly because great investigative journalism is hard to come by. What a treat then that Spotlight is a celebration of both. Director Tom McCarthy investigates the most startling and important journalism of the century, the Catholic churches cover up of sexual child abuse by priests.
The cardinal smiles while staring into the Boston Globe editor’s eyes (Liev Schreiber) and says “The city flourishes when its great institutions work together” and to this the editor, Marty Baron, responds that the paper works best alone. Evil comes in the face of respected power. In the cities power structures, the lack of accountability of those in power corrodes the systems of the city. Polluted morality drips down into the basement of the Boston Globe where our superhero journalists must follow the trail back up to the top. The Spotlight team is an all star cast with Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber.
The actors plays less 3 dimensional characters and more surrogates uncovering facts, but that’s the nature of procedural films. To just hit the brakes on the current hyperbole surrounding this…. Hell nah it ain’t a masterpiece like All the President’s Men or Zodiac but it’s real solid.
Journalism films can be cold because by nature they’re about cold hard facts. Spotlight is focused on the larger picture headlines and foregoes specificity and making the characters emotional centerpieces, but the film doesn’t become merely a visual interpretation of history. A small beating heart comes from the survivors stories and the investigators persistence to stop at nothing until those who are held accountable face their monstrosities. One wishes the survivors had an even more prominent role instead of the newspaper’s process, but their presence is still felt.
McCarthy’s camera subtly probes through the systemic structures of Boston uncovering hidden facts in the shadows of these systems. During conversations with victims the church can be seen as a towering structure in the background, a specter hanging over the city. Spotlight engages and investigates the church as a power structure sustaining its image through lies. The hallways and buildings our investigators walk through are a maze obscuring and leading back to the harsh truth. Stylistically the film is too vanilla to create a palpable sense of thematic space but there’s a clear attempt to illustrate power structures visually.
Those that work at the globe are not perfect or shown to be separate from flawed systems either. Characters become lazy, ignore important facts, and try to go public before the job is done. In the haze of information, despair sets in for them. McCarthy is crafting a tale of journalists who might as well be superheroes. If a door is locked, they find a key. If someone won’t talk, they badger them until they do. It’s a humanistic film about finding morality even when our systems are corrupt. To do the right thing in the face of evil that smiles and pats you on the back.
McCarthy and his all star cast deliver solid work. It’s what I like to call a “full package film” where every element is at least fulfilling. McCarthy deserves a bit more credit than he’s getting. Yes, the film looks about as pretty as an office cubicle and it’s lack of artfulness is troubling but his direction and pacing of this story is methodical and efficient. I’ve seen it described as invisible direction, which, yeah, but still shot/reverse shot gets tiring. Yet, by the third act I was leaning forward in my seat so I could get closer to the screen. I felt invested and gladly would’ve watched another hour of what might be the best showcase of heroism this year. In Spotlight, becoming a superhero is about doing your damn job every day. That’s more profound than you’d think.
Damn good stuff