‘Spotlight’ is a film that moves viewers in small ways, yet it’s also the closest thing to an epic that writer/director Tom McCarthy will likely ever make. Previously, McCarthy focused on small and delicate character studies like ‘The Station Agent’, ‘The Visitor’ and ‘Win Win’. (Let’s just pretend that ‘The Cobbler’ doesn’t exist.). ‘Spotlight’ continues that sensibility, but in a sprawling tale about the team of Boston Globe journalists who uncovered a horrendous scandal in the Catholic Church in 2001.
Dozens of speaking roles bounce around the screen, but McCarthy manages to flesh each one out into a fully dimensional human being no matter how fleeting the screen time. This movie simply wouldn’t have worked without his soft touch. (See last month’s ‘Truth‘ for an example of that.)
The film centers on the Globe‘s Spotlight team, which specialized in long-form investigative reporting. When a new editor (Liev Schreiber) takes over the paper, he asks Spotlight editor Robby Robertson (Michael Keaton) to assign his team to investigate a recent molestation scandal that the Church allegedly covered up. Given that he lives and works in the profoundly Catholic Boston, Robertson is initially hesitant, but takes the story. As he and his team (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D’Arcy James) begin to dig, the problem proves even more massive and disturbing than they imagined.
By doing the boring grunt work of cold-calling and searching through old documents, they discover that, for years, the Church not only hushed up these scandals, but moved priests to new towns where they could become predators on fresh targets. Unsure of when to stop their trip down the rabbit hole and how many people they might have to alienate in the process, the team eventually discovers that no less than 75 priests who previously molested children still live and work in Boston alone. Their story won the Pulitzer Prize, deservingly so.
By focusing on the nitty-gritty details of investigative journalism, ‘Spotlight’ unavoidably draws comparisons to ‘All the President’s Men. However, McCarthy isn’t the type to stylize or aggrandize, even on the meagre scale of that classic picture. He makes movies about people, not issues. The film plays out in small moments and connections. Hushed conversations and pointed exchanges are the dramatic peaks, while wading through paper trails and sitting in waiting rooms to collect sensitive documents qualify as set-pieces.
If that sounds boring, it’s far from the case. Due to the sensitive subject matter, the movie has an ever-escalating urgency and sense of dismay, as well as highly important concerns regarding journalistic ethics, such as the difficulties of getting too close to a subject, or the challenge of knowing the right time to print a story with all the appropriate facts and documents, even if competition might scoop the story and force the Church into damage control before a proper case can be made. Things get emotionally tense and suspenseful, but always within the realm of human moments and ground-level reporting.
McCarthy was an ideal filmmaker to tell this story because he knew how far to sit back and how little manipulation was necessary. It’s all too easy to imagine the button-pushing and forced emotional crescendos that could have turned this true tale into melodramatic fluff. Yet McCarthy never falls for that (with the possible exception of the sweeping score). Instead, he lets his actors do the work. They’re remarkable, from Michael Keaton (who we can only hope never loses this comeback momentum) to a particularly neurotic Mark Ruffalo, the cool and controlled Rachel McAdams, a delightfully unhinged Stanley Tucci, and frankly everyone else who graces the screen.
As a work of ensemble acting alone, the film is required viewing. Given the potent subject matter treated thoughtfully and maturely, it’s even more relevant. Toss in an ode to the sadly dying art of meticulously executed investigative journalism, and you’ve one of the most satisfying American dramas of the year. Expect ‘Spotlight’ to be in the Oscar spotlight and feel free to believe the hype.