Set in the fall of 2001, Spotlight takes its name from the select sector of Boston Globe journalists who, through months of rigorous investigation, uncovered a pattern of sex abuse crimes kept under wraps within the Catholic Church. Along with Globe editors Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and Ben Bradlee (John Slattery), the story focuses on the four members of the Spotlight team: Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Together, they doggedly piece through years of evidence and eventually publish the scathing exposé that would take the world by storm.
It’s likely that this is the most heartfelt love letter to newspaper journalism ever put on film. There are a multitude of small details, from set design choices to nuances in the actors’ performances, that clue us into how these investigative minds really work and what it’s like to live a journalist’s life. My personal favorite inclusion is the ever-present pocket-size note pads and frantically scribbling pens, which are seen so often that they practically become main characters in the story. Director Tom McCarthy is fascinated with how these professionals operate on a day-to-day basis and his admiration for their work shines brightly throughout Spotlight.
He also has a commendable dedication to telling this story ethically and with a great deal of integrity, which is not only critical for a movie based on true events but also for one whose central scandal is still in the process of unfolding. As is the case for these type of films, there are many opportunities to take artistic license in trying to spice up the content but the dramatic flourishes are few and far between. Playing it straight doesn’t always make for the most exciting or dramatically fulfilling cinema out there but when it comes to true story adaptation, I’ll take the honest, humble version over the gaudy, glamorized version any day of the week.
This ethic also carries over to the casting as well, as none of the actors (with the possible exception of Ruffalo) seem to be interested in putting on showy performances for award consideration. Instead, they wisely focus on the studious nature of these characters and the work that they carry out together as a team. The film is economical in its opportunities for us to glimpse into the personal lives of the journalists but perhaps even that is by design: we’re kept at a similar distance as the subjects that they interview. Despite the potential lack of depth with the lead characters, the crime victims are thankfully portrayed with the dignity and empathy that they deserve.
I’d be remiss not to mention the overwhelming Oscar buzz that is prematurely swarming this movie. While the nominations have yet to be announced (January 14th is the date for that) and I have yet to see all of the likely front-runners, it’s easy to see why Spotlight is leading in the Best Picture talk. It has the kind of qualities that the Academy frequently fawns over: based on true events, timely subject matter, a recognizable veteran cast. Something about its approach feels a bit too modest for me to throw overwhelming adoration its way but as a piece of workmanlike filmmaking, it’s a respective and responsible effort.