The title of the new film Spotlight refers to a special investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe. Treated as a somewhat separate and fairly autonomous entity within the culture of the venerable newspaper, the reporters in the Spotlight unit take on major stories and dig unimaginably deep into them before a single word is pressed onto newsprint. The film, directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, depicts this group’s efforts, beginning in 2001, to expose the machinations undertaken by the Catholic Church to harbor child-molesting priests and cover up their own culpability in the scandal, then still dismissed by too many as the despicable actions of a few bad individuals instead of a pervasive culture of accepted abuse.
The cinematic precedent to which McCarthy clearly aspires is All the President’s Men. The film is measured, serious-minded, and committed to quietly celebrating the noble rigor of reporters striving to unearth the truth, especially in the face of monumental institutional opposition. While Alan J. Pakula benefited from the freshness of the national betrayal in his consideration of the Washington Post‘s Watergate reporting, McCarthy dramatically articulates exactly why confronting the Catholic power structure carried so much weight in the city of Boston. Church structures loom through the film, and there’s a strong sense of the ways in which the specific religion in woven inextricably into the souls of every character that crosses the screen, whether they’re actively practicing or not. It is a news story — timely, troubling, and important — but also a swing at the very foundation of the city’s being. McCarthy makes it clear just how bold it was for the Spotlight crew to pursue their investigation.
Across the board, the actors meet the smartly controlled tone of the film, underplaying their characters, whether they are in pursuit of the story or grappling with the ramifications of it in their personal lives. Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, and Stanley Tucci all turn in admirable work, fully resisting any impulse to showboat, to puff up their talky parts with emotionally boisterous maneuvers. Two actors taking different approaches in deep character work epitomize the strength of the film: Mark Ruffalo plays reporter Mike Rezendes with a brutish eagerness that has some echoes of his turns in Zodiac and Foxcatcher, and Liev Schreiber is brilliantly contained as Marty Baron, the editor new to the paper who offers the needed encouragement to dig for the bigger, greater, uglier truths of the story. There’s not a vast divide between the volume levels of the two performances, but taken together they do demonstrate the surprising range that can be found within a deliberately low-key level.
Tempting as it might be to see Spotlight as offering one last desperate celebration of an era of print journalism that could and would expend the time and resources to get a major story perfectly correct rather than rushing forward with frantic clickbait accusations, I don’t think McCarthy is trying to be an aggressive advocate in his filmmaking. Instead, he’s simply following the key mandate of a storyteller: find a tale worth sharing and relay it with integrity.