Review: In Spotlight, old-school journalism is its own kind of thrill ride

Life in the old-timey ancient newsrooms of 2002

Tom McCarthy’s journalists-in-the-trenches period piece Spotlight is almost more remarkable for the scenes it doesn’t include. It’s a movie about a crusading newspaper team slowly uncovering a huge scandal, but there are practically no big, Oscar-worthy screaming matches. No wives give the old “You’re endangering our children and tearing this family apart, why can’t you stop being so principled?!” speech. (See Bridge Of Spies for a recent example.) No self-righteous citizens attack the journalists in public, leave threatening notes on their doorsteps, or sabotage their homes. (See the upcoming Trumbo.) There are no hired assassins or hidden bombs; no reporters racing to the printers just in time to scream “Stop the presses!”

In other words, it’s a film about journalism as it’s practiced in newsrooms, instead of how it’s practiced in Hollywood movies. It’s a story about work that’s rarely cinematic, told without breast-beating or sensationalizing. It’s a potential awards-bait thriller toned down in the spirit of McCarthy’s other restrained, evocative, but quietly intellectual films, including The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. It’s surprising for all these reasons. It’s also hypnotically entertaining.

To be fair, it depicts journalism as it was practiced around 2000, when there was a lot more frantic scribbling in notebooks, and a lot more digging through microfiche records, dusty clippings, and outdated reference manuals. None of this may sound exciting to viewers outside the industry, and Spotlight certainly isn’t an edge-of-the-seat adventure. But it’s still fascinating to see how much has changed in journalism in just 15 years — and how little has changed about what it takes to get a solid story, and to break news that people need to hear.

There are plenty of opportunities for melodrama, but McCarthy isn't interested

Spotlight focuses on a special team at The Boston Globe, dedicated to deep research and longform journalism. In 2002, the Spotlight group (which is still breaking news today, and claims the title of the "oldest continuous investigative reporting team in the country") launched a wave of reports about pedophile priests in Boston, focusing on the ways the Catholic Church had consistently paid off the victims, kept the cases away from police or the courts, and silently shunted the offenders to other dioceses where they often continued to prey on young parishioners. The eventual result was an international outing of Church policy, as victims came forward and investigations started around the globe.

But Spotlight keeps the story small and personal. It starts in 2001 with the arrival of a new editor at the Globe: Marty Baron, a New York Times and Miami Herald veteran who came in to cut costs and shake up the paper’s coverage. Spotlight’s treatment of him is an advance alert for the rest of the movie: Liev Schreiber plays him as a quiet, polite, thoughtful man who tactfully defers to others in public, and just as tactfully demands provable conclusions and solid journalism. Baron, being the reasonable man that he is, gives Spotlight team leader "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) plenty of leeway to explore possible leads with his core crew — Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., and Brian d'Arcy James as Matty Carroll. And ultimately, they spend a year digging into the priest scandal before going to press.

One complication: it’s a cover-up, so almost no one except the victims wants to talk about it, and with sealed court records and off-the-books deals abounding, the victims can be hard to find. Another complication: Baron doesn’t just want to indict some child molesters, he wants to indict the larger Church system that makes a policy of protecting them. A third complication: The Boston Globe’s subscriber base at the time was 53 percent Catholic, in a heavily Catholic-skewed city where biased judges and protective parishioners had every reason not to cooperate with the Spotlight team. Baron is seen as an outsider who may have a fresh perspective, but whose background — Jewish, single, not a Boston native — suggests a naïveté about the impact of the work he’s encouraging. Of course, that gives him all the more freedom to do it.

Spotlight

Open Road Films

And so Spotlight draws its tension not from big drama, but from the audience's awareness of history, the sense that the story is out there, and that justice is waiting to be served. The suspense is in what procedural steps these notepad crusaders will take to find it and prove it. In this regard as in many others, Spotlight closely resembles Alan J. Pakula's 1976 Oscar-winner All The President's Men, another buttoned-down movie about shoe-leather journalism. And much as with All The President's Men, there's a feeling that everyone in Boston already knows about the Church's secret, and are simultaneously shaking with anxiety over the possibility of it being outed and impatient with the paper's plodding, punctilious efforts to make it happen.

Adding to the resemblance is Ruffalo's Rezendes, who, with his rumpled shirts, tense slouch, and mumbly affect is straight evocation of Dustin Hoffman's Carl Bernstein. Rezendes emerges as Spotlight's most emotionally involved reporter and the closest thing the film has to a hero. But Spotlight's only really weak point is presenting him and his teammates as parts in a machine, to the point where it's sometimes hard to tell them apart. They're all gently obsessive without having individual reasons for sacrificing their lives to their careers; they aren't people who chose journalism, they're ür-journalists who appear to have sprung fully formed from the printing press. While Ruffalo does get one shouty moment that's guaranteed to show up in the Academy clip reels this year, ultimately, the film is more about the story than the people who broke it.

Spotlight does find an emotional hook, however, when it turns its attention to the victims of pedophilia — which it manages to do without feeling exploitative. At several points throughout the film, Rezendes and the team speak to adults who were molested as kids to talk about what happened and what it meant to them, and these scenes provide the pathos and urgency the film might otherwise lack. "It's like God asking for help," one interviewee says, about the queasy excitement of being brought into a priest's personal confidence. And then: "When a priest does this to you, he robs you of your faith."

There are plenty of opportunities for melodrama in this material, but McCarthy isn't interested. Instead, he and co-writer Josh Singer (a West Wing and Fringe vet) stick to the facts, bringing their own obsessive diligence to bear on making Spotlight as true to life as possible. (Several of the real-life Spotlight crew have written entertaining Globe essays on the actors' research into them, and the push for micro-focused verisimilitude on the film.) Spotlight is anchored securely in its era, from the hairstyles to the clothes to the exact technological moment where all the reporters had desktop computers or even laptops, but still defaulted to pen and paper when recording phone conversations.

And that's where it finds that hypnotic effect — in its precision and realism. Michael Keaton, who returned to leading roles with last year's histrionic Birdman, couldn't be more different here, or further away from the comedy chops that made his name. His Robinson is a grey man, a sober, driven functionary whose only personal drama is a regret in not getting to the story earlier. According to the real-life versions of the people onscreen, Keaton, Ruffalo and McAdams are all doing note-perfect impressions of their subjects. But it's egoless work, all but invisible onscreen. Spotlight is a story about human deception, human predation, human selfishness, and human idealism — but it's barely about an actual group of humans. It's about the rewards of hard work and a dedication to truth. Even without fireworks and firefights, it's immensely satisfying to watch.

Spotlight opens in select theaters on November 6th.


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