Films made about the media tend to be aggrandizing, puffing up the role media play in influencing others. It’s not that what the films have to say isn’t true; it’s more that the level of credit given to the media in movies makes them come off as completely virtuous and infallible.
That is not the case with Spotlight, which manages to insert all sorts of subtle nuances into a story that could have easily been classified as good versus evil. The title refers to the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, a small group that has done long-term investigative pieces for the venerable newspaper since the early 1970s.
In 2001, they were tasked by new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to look into the alleged systemic cover-up by the Archdiocese of Boston of sexual abuse on children by area priests. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James) doggedly pursued any and all leads, uncovering a slew of uncomfortable details, including some about themselves.
Written and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Visitor), with help from co-writer Josh Singer, the film never skimps on showing the reporters' processes. We’re told that the team can spend months, if not years, on just one story, and that hard work is conveyed brilliantly, as each member seems to spend every waking moment working on some aspect of the case.
Perhaps more important, it never devolves into finger-pointing. There’s plenty of anger to be levied at figures like Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the archdiocese at the time, but McCarthy and Singer are careful to point out that many people, including police officers, lawyers, and even newspaper writers, chose to either ignore or minimize the problems they saw.
The result is a film that is as taut as any action thriller. The investigation takes a toll on everybody involved, not just because of the amount of work they put in, but because the secrets revealed about the Catholic Church in a heavily Catholic city like Boston has everyone questioning their belief system.
Although this role is not as showy as his Oscar-nominated turn in last year’s Birdman, Keaton is the glue that holds the whole ensemble together and delivers the biggest gut punch of the film. McAdams deglamorizes herself for her matter-of-fact part, a choice that enhances her performance. Ruffalo utilizes a clinched jaw for his speaking style, a choice that annoys at first but works better and better as the film goes along.
The power the media has to affect change and expose corruption is one that should never be taken for granted. It takes a special movie like Spotlight to bring this back into focus and could serve as inspiration in the current fractured media landscape.