Let me state this plainly: Spotlight is one of the best films of the year. In its film
festival showings it has drawn comparison to another great movie, All the President’s Men, and understandably
so. It dramatizes a real-life chapter in recent history of journalists working
long and hard to break a difficult story. Reporters are the movie’s heroes, and
it’s clear that director Tom McCarthy and his writing partner Josh Singer are
celebrating the kind of journalism that is threatened with extinction today. Yet
Spotlight is anything but elegiac: it
is too busy recreating the dogged determination and patience of its protagonists
as they gather the evidence they need to reveal a volatile story.
Set in 2001
and early 2002, Spotlight follows the
Globe’s investigative team, led by
Michael Keaton, as they follow every possible lead to expose the story of sexual
abuse in Boston’s Catholic diocese. They know it’s true but they’re not sure
how widespread it is, at first, or how long church leaders have known about it.
Evidence of a cover-up is as disturbing as the events that predicated the need
for such action.
Like All the President’s Men, the film is
less about the scandal than it is the effort to uncover it. Along the way, we
learn how different reporters—played with passion and conviction by Mark
Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James—attack the assignment, using
their strengths to break down potential sources, whether that means demanding
court records or canvassing a neighborhood one door at a time. Keaton uses his
influence to approach high-level sources—including close friends—who want
nothing to do with the investigation. Liev Schreiber plays the newly-installed
editor-in-chief of the paper who backs his team as they spend months digging
for evidence in a city where the church has uncommon power and control.
McCarthy paces his film like a thriller and that’s just how it plays out.
Knowing the outcome takes nothing away from the feeling of suspense and unease
that he creates along the way. The film turns unexpectedly moving when we meet
the first of many victims (who prefer to be called survivors) of pedophilia and
see how he has been scarred by the experience.
The fact that
there are stars in the leading roles doesn’t distract in the slightest, because
they are so convincing; nearly all of them got to meet the people they’re
portraying, which couldn’t have hurt. The cast is filled out with expert actors
like Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, and Jamey Sheridan,
who bring their A-game to this juicy material.
McCarthy is one of my favorite filmmakers: The
Station Agent, The Visitor, and the underappreciated Win Win are among his credits. He’s also a busy actor and worked on
the story of Pixar’s Up. This may
well be his best work to date. The early awards “buzz” for Spotlight is not misplaced; it’s a terrific film and a must-see.