One of the great triumphs of Spotlight is how it manages to sidestep histrionics and grandstanding. Instead, Tom McCarthy gives us a muted, methodical, deeply human, perspective on how the Boston Globe uncovered the Catholic sex abuse scandal of the early 2000’s.
At the same time, Spotlight manages to show the importance of good journalism at a local level, and the necessity for taking one’s time in doing the research and putting the puzzle pieces in their proper place. In today’s age of instant gratification in all things, including our news, it’s a reminder of why the media, much maligned as it is, is vitally important to our society.
It does both of these things while also showing how a major sprawling metropolis like Boston is eerily like a small town. “Father so and so?” “Oh, didn’t he use to be over at St. such and such?” The head of Spotlight, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) went to high school across the street from the Boston Globe.
All this comes together as McCarthy weaves a tapestry of people coming to terms with the fact that they’ve allowed, either by tacit denial or just straight up disbelief, one of the most horrific institutionalized scandals in American history. One of the lead Editors at the Globe, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) is resistant to the story. Like most Bostonians, he’s deeply Catholic and has trouble buying into the idea of some large overarching international conspiracy. At one point he balks at the supposed estimate of pedophilic priests and asks how could there be that many and nobody say anything. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) says simply, “Good Germans.”
McCarthy wisely stays away, for the most part, from any grand speeches or scenes with big emotional payoffs. Here, they would play as insincere and overly dramatic. Thousands of kids were sexually molested by the clergy and the Church did nothing. That in itself is dramatic enough.
The camera work of Masanobu Takayanagi is subtle and sublime in its simplicity. Rarely is a city so closely affiliated with a religion quite like Boston is with the Catholic church, and McCarthy and Takayanagi show it. The looming cathedrals that litter Boston are always looming in the background. During a moment of foreshadowing and humor there is a shot of an AOL billboard as it stands ominously outside the offices of the Globe parking lot.
The movie even takes the time to be oddly meta, and it does so beautifully: a survivor telling about his traumatic experience, only to stop in front of a church with a playground and go, “And look at that. A church with a playground in front of it.” This takes the pressure off what could be heavy handed imagery while also adding to the fact the visual is not uncommon in Boston.
The notion to make the staff of the Globe’s Spotlight as our guide through this story is brilliant. The story’s scope is so massive and deeply disturbing, doing so from inside would be almost too much. The lawyer for the defense, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) even says the only way this story will be told is by outsiders. Indeed, it’s only because the Globe gets a new Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) that Spotlight is even taking what amounts to another look at the scandal.
Spotlight is as near a perfect film as I’ve seen this year. Not since Tangerine have I been in love with a movie this much. Like all great movies, what makes Spotlight great is because it’s not about one thing. It’s about a dozen things. The key is it never becomes overwhelmed by itself. Through it all it keeps its focus: on the kids. It never forgets the kids. It understands as Baron says, “Most of the time, in life, we stumble around in the dark and then someone turns the light on…”
Spotlight is about that most human of human endeavors: the stumbling around in the dark searching for answers. The staff at the Globe don’t want what they discover when the light comes on to be true. But still they press on.
I love this movie. I really do. I’ve seen it twice in three days. It’s damn good movie about some damn good reporting. At the same time, it never pats itself on the back. Because the constant refrain of “How could this happen?” never overcomes the truth of it did happen– and we let it. Spotlight does something all art should do: it restores your faith in humanity while being honest about it at the same time.