As print journalism continues to die off, and investigative reporting as it used to be known continues to be minimal in existence, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight focuses on a specific point in journalism history. The subject that the film tackles is one that makes a case for why investigative journalism should be more important to newspapers, and shines an unflattering light on the news, judicial systems, and the church. It is never completely scathing of any system – it wants to expose the flaws in all of them, but also wants to retain recognition of their importance.
It’s that level of methodical examination that makes Spotlight more than a film about the flaws of the Catholic church – a subject that has been examined in so many documentaries and dramatizations, in recent memory. It’s the David Simon approach of trying to understand the system, as opposed to merely knocking it for its problems. As Walter “Robbie” Robertson (Michael Keaton) is constantly reminded that The Boston Globe dismissed the very case he is now investigating with his team at the Spotlight desk, you can’t help but feel the indictment towards the media’s business practices. It’s not that a story isn’t worth being told, it’s that it needs to be told in the right way at the right time. Sometimes, something doesn’t seem as big as it is until you dig deeper.
McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer flesh out the nuances of the journalism industry to an exhausting detail: showing conflicts between editors and writers, the resources required, the passion for a story, and most importantly, the relationships that are fostered and harmed because of the job. As characters acknowledge the absence of Michael Rezendes’s (Mark Ruffalo) wife – without the film ever actually showing her or having Michael do more than acknowledge she exists – there’s a subtlety to the humanity given to its ensemble cast. All it takes is looking at how much Michael loves the hunt for a story in both his mannerisms and his passion for it to make sense that his wife would not be present during the events of the movie. All the characters have such home relationships, appearing periodically, but never to a point where they feel distracting or contrived.
Yet it is the subject matter of Spotlight that brings a lot of the emotional weight to the film. The Boston Globe’s Spotlight desk investigates allegations of molestation by priests within the Boston Archdiocese after a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), assigns them to the job. There are a lot of moments within the movie where Robbie is faced with decisions, such as agreeing to take on the investigation knowing the heat it will bring onto the paper. The classic “gut feeling” rarely manages to feel organic in films like this, but the way Robbie (and specifically Keaton’s performance of Robbie) handles the “gut feeling” is one of the more realistic portrayals. Even early in the film when we have little to go on, it feels natural that he would follow one lead over another. Every character gets that moment – where the spark is in their eyes and all you want is them to go down that rabbit hole.
An impeccably written script is what anchors this entire film, with McCarthy’s extremely effortless direction. What sells the movie is its ensemble cast and their dynamic. As weird as it sounds, I kind of want this cast and characters to become serialized. It’s the kind of film that feels alive because of how incredibly passionate its characters get. The dialogue between Ruffalo and Keaton is electric, with so many scenes standing out as career-best moments for the former. Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James are far more restrained in their performances, but mostly because their characters have much more grounded lives. Their characters still work hard and enjoy what they’re doing, but they don’t carry the same gravitas that Keaton, Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, and John Slattery do. Those four, as well as Schreiber, portray people who have news coursing through their veins.
It is easy for a drama like this to feel too self-indulgent and self-important. It takes something else to make characters like Robbie and Michael feel real. Yes, they are real, but a lot of films and television tend to pretend there’s only one side of a coin to a character – robots that hunt for news and can’t even compute the notion of an outside life. McCarthy and Singer’s script works because its characters work. If they didn’t, every emotion would feel unearned. It is one of the best ensemble casts, and works so well because of their dynamism. Spotlight is a tense thriller that perfectly captures the romantic notions of investigative journalism; doing so with exhaustive detail and incredible heft.
Screening courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival