The real story behind a Pulitzer-winning series
Director Tom McCarthy creates cinematic tension by setting two institutions on a collision course as the Catholic Church and The Boston Globe wrestle arrogance and ego while professing human compassion
Starring: Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
Directed by: Tom McCarthy
Running time: 128 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
The big surprise in Spotlight isn’t the headline story that finally appears on the front page, it’s how easily the whole scandal could have disappeared.
In 2002, The Boston Globe began a series of investigative stories about the Boston Archdiocese, and the way it turned a blind eye to the continual sexual abuse of children at the hands of predatory priests.
The body of coverage won a Pulitzer Prize and paved the way for more victims to come forward and begin the long process of healing, but the truth had been staring them in the face for decades, in the very pages of the Boston Globe itself.
Every once in a while, some court reporter or religion reporter would write about one case, one priest or pastor who used the collar to gain power over a minor. But as is the case in most newsrooms, one story gets papered over by another, and by the next week, one narrative thread is already lost in the tangle of daily news.
It’s just what happens, which is why Tom McCarthy’s approach to the yarn is so refreshing. He lets us see the humbling bumbling of real decision-making in most corporate media offices, where everyone looks over his or her shoulder and holds a finger to the wind before raising a hand.
He also understands that journalists are not perfect people, and that the quest for truth can get bogged down by ego, stupidity, and plain old laziness.
We get a whiff of these toxins as we follow our Spotlight team through the bowels of the Globe building, into their little cubby hole of an office in the basement – removed from the main newsroom to protect their intelligence — in all senses of the word.
Lead by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and including Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Renzedes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), the Spotlight team picks its own stories and spends months researching them to the bone. They saw the stories their colleagues were writing, but standing in the trees, they couldn’t see the forest.
It was incoming editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who started to see the blurry mass of wood, but when he first raised the idea of a series that could expose the church, he met a lot of resistance – and that’s where half the drama in Spotlight comes from.
Balancing the nuts and bolts part of the investigation with the larger ethical questions dancing behind the headlines, screenwriters McCarthy and Josh Singer succeed in doing what great journalism is supposed to do: Deliver groundbreaking facts through compelling human narrative.
It’s not enough to watch the victims break down as they relive events that changed their lives. We have to watch how those revelations shake through the fact grinder of institutional thinking – on the part of both the church, and the Globe.
McCarthy recognizes that’s where the real problem lies because institutions demand the sacrifice of the individual. It’s why the Church did not act, and it’s why The Globe originally figured it had done its job with daily coverage: Everyone thought they knew best.
Meanwhile, the victims are written off as, well, ‘victims.’
It’s up to the reporter to humanize it all, to bring it back to a real story with real feelings, and this cast gets it. Ruffalo pins his part with intense body language and a hint of a tick, McAdams does it with her empathetic gaze and genuine curiosity.
Then again, it could have been the pants. Just about everyone in this movie sports beige khakis and wears clothes about three years out of date, which is just about right.
And that’s the fun part. We believe all these movie stars are bedraggled Globe reporters, and we also buy the newsroom dynamics. From egos slowly twisted out of joint to subtle power plays in the glass offices, we can see all the human gears in the mechanism and it’s hypnotic, often, it’s hilarious.
This strange dynamo is what makes journalism so seductive, as well as so flawed. Spotlight is one of the first films to show us how newsrooms really function, but even a decade after the fact, it’s also something of a time capsule – and a reminder that once upon a time, there were librarians and press libraries, newsrooms full of hungry reporters, and an unspoken commitment to uncover the truth regardless of the impact on the bottom line.
THE EX-PRESS, November 13, 2015