The seriousness of purpose that underlies Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight makes it one of the best films of the year. It is an intensely moral yet tonally objective film that takes an extremely sensitive issue and gives it the real scrutiny it deserves, not unlike the titular reporting team itself. McCarthy tells the story without much editorial flourish beyond a propulsive, piano-driven score by Howard Shore, preferring to zero in on the intense personalities who made it possible to uncover the well-hidden scandal at the center of it all. For a film that decries the spiritual failure of a massive institution, it mercifully maintains an even keel throughout, never devolving into hysterics or diatribes.
Spotlight is the name of a four-person group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe. The team is comprised of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Broadway veteran Brian d’Arcy James) and is led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Upon the introduction of their new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), they are dispatched to investigate the molestation of a young boy by a Boston-based, Catholic priest. The team discovers that the scandal goes way deeper than they could have anticipated, as does the influence of the Catholic Church in not only Boston, but in the world at large, at suppressing knowledge of the prevalence of such abuse.
Spotlight has already won the Robert Altman award for best ensemble from the Independent Spirit Awards, and for good reason: it has not only the best ensemble cast of the year, but of any film I have seen in quite some time. Everyone is cast to play to their strengths here: Ruffalo is affable but intense; Keaton’s charm belies sharp intelligence; McAdams is the most sympathetic; Schreiber downplays when others may have gone for bombast. The only wild card for me was James, who was completely credible as the worried family man of the group (he has two children and happens to live very close to a rehabilitation facility for pedophiliac priests).
Of the group, Ruffalo is perhaps the weakest link, despite the clear evidence that he was trying to give a real Performance. Similar to his extreme mannerisms in his Oscar-nominated role in last year’s Foxcatcher, Ruffalo has slimmed down to journalist proportions, but is just as twitchy and physically uneasy as the other real-life character he played. He is also given the script’s one moment of Oscar-baiting, in which he shouts quite loudly and passionately about his beliefs. If anyone deserves awards recognition, it’s probably Schreiber, but Ruffalo is the likely candidate to be chosen.
The screenplay, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is the other highlight of the film. For me, Spotlight’s closest spiritual cousin is The Wire, in which McCarthy coincidentally had a supporting role in its final season, which concerned the daily workings of the Baltimore Sun. The script does not pander to the audience; it expects that you can use context clues to understand the journalists’ lingo, which whips by you at a million miles an hour like you’d expect it to. McCarthy and Singer use real-life events in order to provide information about the larger world in which these characters operate. For example, the introduction of Schreiber’s outsider editor-in-chief enables Keaton’s Boston-lifer to explain the caginess of the city’s culture. Subtle touches like this make the film go down easy, even when it seems overwhelming at first.
Spotlight is a narrative film based on a true story of the best kind. The audience with which I viewed the film was completely swept up in the shocking truths it uncovered for them, proving that despite the 2003 Pulitzer Prize being awarded to the Spotlight team, many people outside of Boston are unaware of the scope of the offense against Catholic children. This is the kind of story that needs to be told more often, with the even-handedness of an expert filmmaker like McCarthy.