I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a film set in a newspaper office or a news channel, and cringed at how poorly researched it was. Few films accurately capture the rough and tumble of a busy newsroom like Spotlight does. From the thrill of meeting a deadline to the horror of being scooped by a rival, to the sheer frustration of watching a lead go cold, co-writer/director Tom McCarthy depicts the highs and lows of the reporting profession with remarkable understanding.
Set in 2001 and early 2002, this skillfully crafted old school journalism drama recounts the yearlong crusade of The Boston Globe’s investigative team to expose the story of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church.
The film, however, is not so much about the scandal as it is about the effort to uncover it. McCarthy fashions Spotlight like a tense thriller, with Michael Keaton playing Walter Robinson, leader of the crack team of reporters (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) who attack the assignment with bloodhound-like obsession…doggedly digging for evidence, combing through records, and relentlessly coaxing potential sources to cooperate. Liev Shreiber plays Marty Baron, the taciturn new editor who initiates the investigation.
Some of the film’s powerful moments come from victims who open up to the reporters. Yet McCarthy refrains from painting the church as the sole, all-responsible villain, rightly dividing the blame between multiple parties, including the slow-to-act media. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” a character points out bluntly.
Spotlight is meticulous and riveting, and offers a potent reminder that investigative journalism is critical to a fair and just society. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Ruffalo deserving special mention as the chief reporter deeply committed to breaking the story. McCarthy casts solid actors like John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup in key supporting roles, and they’re in equally good form.
This is that rare film that appeals to both the head and the heart. In these cynical times, it’s comforting to be reminded of the power of solid, honest journalism. I’m going with four out of five. Nominated for 6 Oscars, Spotlight is my favorite of the 8 films nominated for Best Picture this year.