Investigative journalism isn’t what it used to be. Most “hard-hitting” stories come in the form of 3-minutes exposes on the evening news, or the occasional Dateline hour-long special, outlining a case from start to near finish. A presenter, some clips and interviews and long establishing shots – it’s all very neat and concise. The casual observer may never think of the hard work that goes into a deeply painful story, from talking to the victims to dragging the truth from officials, with the hours sifting through reams of articles, and the blocks designed to keep the investigators from achieving that one kernel of truth necessary to pull it all together.
Spotlight tells the true story of the Boston Globe uncovering the shuffling of predator priests by the Boston Archdiocese and the scandal that would eventually go all the way to the Vatican. Walter “Robby” Robison (Michael Keaton) leads his hard-hitting investigative team, Spotlight, in all manner of exposés. What initially appears to be one bad priest in a few cases of abuse unravels into tens of dozens and hundreds of victims. The man on the street may think an organization like the Boston Catholic Archdiocese runs its Legal Counsel like the Mob runs its pretzel sales, but they’d be wrong. The subtle complicity and shuffling of files, like the sick men it was protecting was cunning with the slight oh hand of a skilled magician.
While the scandal of one priest spiraling outward in a tornado misdirection and settlements is the focal point, the real meat of the tale comes from the passion and diligence of the journalists of the Boston Globe: Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mark Ruffalo is Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) is along for the ride because it’s an important story. Helming the potential trainwreck if the story goes off the rails is Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who acts as the pure journalistic view of the world around him. He’s the ultimate outsider in this story – not from Boston, Jewish, and seen as a carpetbagger. Everyone has something at stake in this, from personal and professional relationships, to their very jobs. Kudos to Michael Keaton who manages to find a way to command the screen in stealth Determination Mode. Robinson is a man who cares and treading lightly is not why get he got into investigative journalism.
There is nothing heavy-handed or salacious about how the material is presented, no bleeding headlines, no over-the-top details, no shadowy re-enactments – just the raw facts, because they’re horrific enough. The pain and frustration of the survivors is a tangible element in the movie, all of them with the same helpless, buried anger of abandonment and shame. This is not an easy movie to watch, like trying to salvage an onion you found in the back of the fridge. You know it’s edible if you could just peel back enough layers to find the good parts. In peeling back the layers of rot and disease of the Church Scandal, it only gets worse, not better.
This is a movie about journalism and reporting the story with facts, not retractions. It’s about getting the door slammed in your face but having all of your ducks in a row before you go to press. It’s chasing the story for the human element and giving the survivors a voice. It’s seeing your efforts bring about real change.
Even the montage sequences show with quiet grace just how ingrained the Church is in the Boston communities, with spires visible along the skyline from any corner. Screenwriter John Singer (Fringe) shares the script duties with director Tom McCarthy, and while both are known for high fantasy (Up) and intimate human portrays of everyday life (Win-Win, The West Wing), they manage to take a large scale scar and craft it into a sprawling but manageable focus, showing the faces behind the news and the tragic lives from which the news is born. Spotlight brought the systemic problem of the malignant and plight of the menaced off a back column and made it a conversation the world is still talking about. Like the omnipresence of the Church, those stories were always there in plain sight, waiting for someone to piece together the story.