The journalism thriller seems almost like an oxymoron. What could be thrilling about the process of conducting interviews, taking notes, editing copy and upholding journalistic integrity? To many, the journalism beat likely seems a tedious, paper-pushing slog, and yet Hollywood had cultivated a strong little subgenre about how nail-bitingly intense the hunt for a major scoop can become. The best the subgenre has offered over the years—Zodiac, Shattered Glass, All the President’s Men—have made investigative reporting as gripping as any cloak-and-dagger fare, following intrepid writers as they track a whale of a story into a treacherous hall of mirrors. The daily lives of journalists are almost certainly more likely to be mired in trivialities such as maintaining the correct usage of “their” versus “they’re,” yet every so often, writers are allowed to step out into the world, put on their detective hats and really make a difference.
Spotlight is the latest thriller out to quicken pulses while watching print journalists crusading for truth. The film depicts the real-life 2001 exploits of the “Spotlight” team, a small collection of writers for The Boston Globe who pursue long-gestating stories about local corruption. The team is comprised of veteran Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his writing staff, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). The arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), causes a bit of a turnaround at the Globe, as he opts to pursue a major story about molestation occurring in the Boston area perpetrated by Catholic priests. A handful of arrests have been made over the years, but the charges never seem to stick and the cases quickly vanish into the wind. Because Boston is a predominantly Catholic town, the church wields a lot of influence and many in positions of power are all too willing to capitulate to them. The soft-spoken Baron, as much an outsider as is possible in Beantown (a Jewish transplant who doesn’t care a lick about sports), sees a real barnburner in this story and fearlessly opts to pursue it, enlisting the Spotlight team to spearhead it.
The team, refreshingly, does not see this new assignment as a burden foisted upon them by a heel of a boss, but as an enticing challenge. They begin sniffing around the lawyers representing both the victims and the church and initially find both parties to be close-lipped and unhelpful. After sitting down with some of the now-grown victims of abuse, the writers are moved by the quickly emerging courage these people show as they bare their tortured souls. As the team starts to pin down the particulars of the story, they quickly realize that a vast conspiracy is in place to keep all facts buttoned down tight. Documents are hidden from public record, city officials become very squirrelly when pressed for comment, and no one with anything to lose wants to talk about the cassock-draped elephant in the room. What starts out as a handful of priests appearing on the team’s radar quickly grows to 13, and eventually balloons into a whopping 90 priests in the Boston area who have abused children. Realizing the full heft of the conspiracy galvanizes the team to break the story open once and for all.
Spotlight is an intriguing and thorough depiction of the team’s investigative efforts, but is often a bit on the dry side. Unlike most of its journalism-thriller contemporaries, the case never creates any life-or-death stakes for any of the reporters. Their lives, families and careers are never placed into jeopardy, the only real stake being the potentiality that the truth might not be unearthed. Their pursuit is an absolutely worthwhile one, of course, but not the kind of thing that truly gets the blood pumping, cinematically, with no risk introduced. The film also makes the curious choice of keeping the priests and the church as unseen entities, referred to as a sinister and powerful force yet never emerging as an onscreen presence. The conspiracy’s central figure, Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), only puts in a brief appearance and we only, fleetingly, meet one priest, a confused old man with truly strange rationalization techniques. It’s understandable that the film, with its sights so clearly set on realism, might want to avoid casting anyone as a purely villainous figure, but making the target of its crusade into a faceless bogeyman that never retreats from the shadows has the diminishing effect of having its heroes fighting against a principle rather than a conflicting force.
Though blessed with an immaculate cast, Spotlight isn’t much of an actor’s showcase. Keaton, McAdams and Schreiber all do solid work, as does John Slattery, as a Globe higher-up, and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup, as lawyers who alternately thwart and aide the reporters, but the film, in the spirit of its subjects, stands as a work of quiet professionalism rather than flashy, Oscar-hungry showboating. The lone exception is Ruffalo, who imbues Rezendes with a twitchy tenacity that clearly marks the actor as the standout among the cast. The entire Spotlight team is dedicated, but Rezendes is invested on an entirely other level. The film, to its credit, does not feel the need to shoehorn the team’s personal lives into the proceedings, as many docudramas are keen to do, but in passing, it does fill in some details of Rezendes’ personal life. We first learn that he is married, in a quick aside, and after we’ve had some time to wonder how a man focused this singlemindedly on his work could hold onto a wife, we later see him in a dumpy apartment and are told that he and his wife are, unsurprisingly, separated. The film doesn’t make a meal out of this revelation, choosing instead to allow it to stand as a bit of texture added to the character. It’s subtle in a good way.
Subtlety, however, is something that Spotlight does strain for on occasion. There are far too many ham-handed shots of children playing, the better to contrast their intact innocence with that which has been lost by the priests’ victims. We in the audience are very much aware of what is at stake here without inelegant reminders peppered in throughout. But in its default setting as a straightforward, no-frills procedural, the film does commendably solid work. That work extends to the way it sets its place in time, as when the September 11th attacks temporarily derail the team’s work on the story or when a seemingly prehistoric AOL billboard is glimpsed. In contrast to comparable docu-thrillers, Spotlight may not be anything sexy, but given its subject matter, that’s probably a good thing.
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