Let’s cut to the chase. “Spotlight” is not a visually ambitious film. And while I’m well aware that cinema is a visual medium, it still feels right, and it still feels right because this is a movie about journalists who favor economical language in the form of facts over ornate, opinionated tomes. So director Tom McCarthy follows the template with his camera - set the scene, show the characters and where they are and what they are after and what else do you need to know? I’d like to think of Ben Bradlee Jr., played in “Spotlight” by an effectively grumpy, no nonsense John Slattery, sitting in the editing room of this film, openly questioning why they need anything other than walk & talk sequences and reverse tracking shots. “Well, but…” But nothing. The decision not only highlights the dialogue, of which there is plenty, riveting even when its nuts and bolts, but on the film’s subject matter, the 2001 sexual abuse scandal uncovered in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Taking its title from the special reports team at the Boston Globe, the hard-working quartet, overseen by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) is assigned to the story by their new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), an outsider from Miami who seems surprised the story has garnered next to no coverage. It is explained to him in varying terms that the Church is an Institution in Boston, one as vital as government, perhaps more so, and even more prone to turning a blind eye to its own problems. Baron, however, rendered wonderfully by Schrieber as a quiet man internalizing everything and putting up with nothing, insists, unleashing a kind of holy war, two great institutions pitted against one another.
There is little in the way of traditional drama, aside from occasional moments of Church representatives acting kindly when they are really acting sinister and saying things like “You don’t know what you’re dealing with.” After all, we know how the story ends. The Globe wins the Pulitzer. The Catholic Church is found guilty in the Court of Public Opinion. So it’s not so much about suspense as a kind of satisfaction in watching these reporters hustle, which McCarthy renders with crisp editing, the film always moving forward, never bogging down amidst so much mundane busy work and so many expository conversations. And those conversations are rendered with all that jazz by a uniformly stellar cast impeccably singing both individually and in harmony.
Keaton conveys an immaculate taciturn loyalty for his troops and McAdams’ natural luminescence is perfect for Sacha, someone who excels at making others comfortable to draw out the truth, and Brian d’Arcy James, his sleeves rumpled, his mustache unimpeachable, looks like a Bostonian who hits Dunkin’ Donuts every morning, and hey, who doesn’t love Stanley Tucci? It’s Ruffalo, however, as Mike Rezendes who earns Best in Show going away even as he resolutely remains part of a genuine ensemble. He clips his hair and his speech, talking in quick-mounted patter, honed by someone used to needing a few quotes before deadline. His posture is all forward and to the side, a lifetime hunched over a keyboard and with a ballpoint pen taking notes. He effuses a simultaneous kindness and curtness; he wants to hear what you have to say and he also wants you to just go ahead and say it. He has no outside life, really, save for one scene when another character wonders if he’s reconciling with his wife and he says, with a smile piled with so much backstory you’d need a whole other movie to tell it, “Working on it.” He’s married, in other words, to his work, like they all are, though McCarthy deserves credit for simply letting their cramped office look like the family room and never making them say “You know, I’m married to my work.”
“Spotlight’s” jam-packed script, co-written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is devoid of grandstanding, soul-searching monologues, save for one, delivered by Mike near the end, in which he takes council with Sacha who once again plays the shoulder on which someone can cry. All his thoughts and feelings about this horrid investigation surface and he bursts. It’s crucial because the movie skillfully builds to this moment with mounds and mounds of evidence.
The Catholic Church’s grave sins hum in the background of this film, like their cathedral spires tower in the background of so many shots, like the Church really is inescapable in the small town of Beantown, but for all the horrors uncovered they never quite take center stage. This isn’t so much an indictment of the Church as an argument in the name of the good journalism. It’s a job, not a crusade, and, as Baron preaches, they are determined to build this story from the top down rather than simply sensationalizing with place-holding pieces. They wait until the hull is built with no cracks and no leaks.
“Spotlight” will invite comparisons to “All The President’s Men”, certainly, yet Alan J. Paukla’s film was of the moment while “Spotlight” recounts a story some fourteen years old. That’s not accidental. There is a shot in “Spotlight” that puts an “AOL Everywhere” billboard in the same frame as the Globe offices. It’s as close as the film gets to a condemnation of our in-a-rush-to-judge-before-all-the-facts-are-in culture. McCarthy never feels the need to take it further. Like the intrepid, exhaustive reporters they were, "Spotlight" itself marshals all the facts and roundly presents its argument, leaving the audience to watch and take away what they will. And in an American climate where those in positions of most power are more willing than ever to ascribe media blame for their own aptitudinal and moral flaws, it’s entirely possible that in another fifteen years, this film will come across as even more of a wistful relic.