Movie Review: ‘SPOTLIGHT’ Shines a Light on the Power of Journalism

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Bill Graham // Film Critic

SPOTLIGHT | 128 min | R
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci

Investigative journalism is more important now than it has been in decades because of the rush to publish that surrounds the world of the internet and the 24-hour television news cycle. Finding more than just a good story that will make a splash, but searching for damning evidence that should bring about change? That’s the world we step into in SPOTLIGHT, the riveting new drama from writer/director Tom McCarthy (THE VISITOR).

The film follows the exploits of The Boston Globe’s investigative branch, “Spotlight,” as they uncover the story they revealed in 2002 about the Catholic Church and their systematic cover-up of child molesting priests. While that seems dour subject matter, and it certainly has to feel painful for any of the real-life victims to relive in celluloid form, McCarthy focuses on the investigation itself instead of the actual acts, and as a result, delivers a powerful and nuanced look at journalism in one of its purest forms.

The film begins with a brief flash into a cover-up in the 70s that plays with a limited amount of information that is over before we know what we are being told, although the ominous tone is clear. We then jump to 2001 as Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a new editor at the Globe, takes interest in a recent story they published about an abusive priest in Boston. He’s clearly done his research and realizes that the “Spotlight” team, who specialize in long form investigative reporting, might be suited to uncovering more of this story.

The head of “Spotlight” is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), a determined editor that has spent years working his way into his role with a pride in the community he serves. Everywhere he goes he seems to find a familiar face and as the investigation heats up it becomes increasingly problematic in unexpected ways. Early on he begins assigning the tasks inside his four-person team with a sly humor that shows how an actual small team of journalists might work together to crack a story open.

He tasks his bulldog reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) to go after names and sources that are reluctant, like Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney who is taking the Catholic Church to court while representing the various victims in the long-running case who is reluctant to cooperate with the media. His claims become the backbone of much of the story as we find a few major players in the scandal who turned to the media in various ways without success in the past. No one seemed to take interest until years after people were ready to fight back in a public format. They feel burned by the media and are reluctant to seek their help again when the Catholic Church had already done immense damage with a smear campaign against them. It’s a haunting revelation that shows how people view the media as the fighter for justice in the public realm that can cause a wave of pressure for positive change. But they can also just as easily ignore your pleas for help. They are led by people who are often overworked, corruptible and entirely human.

Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeifer (Rachel McAdams) often finds herself alongside Robby as they interview and follow-up on powerful leads in the community. Additionally, Pfeifer and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) are clearly shown to have the most tact and, while given various other tasks, are also handed a few potent scenes talking with victims directly and trying to find corroboration and details. In particular is a moment when Pfeifer talks with a former priest that outright confesses to his crimes and yet acts like nothing wrong happened because he didn’t “enjoy” the acts. It’s chilling and with just a few powerful moments gives us all the dark details to give the audience a way to understand the struggles of the reporters and editors trying to balance a breaking story with one that could truly change the system.

L-R: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d'Arcy James. Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

L-R: Michael Keaton, Liev Schreiber, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery and Brian d’Arcy James. Photo courtesy of Open Road Films.

The initial story they find alleges that 13 priests in Boston had been moved around for molesting children. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (THE FIFTH ESTATE) hone in on simple details that form a pattern. Their prey often involved low income, troubled youths. The victims often claim that the power of the church and the Fathers themselves was like God taking an interest in them that turns from simple acts of responsibility to outright molestation and leaves the victims wondering how to speak out against a place or a person that stands for everything they believe to be right and holy. That pattern again forms when Carroll uncovers archives of year to year guides on which priest is where for a given time period. We see descriptions like “sick leave” and “unassigned” come up that show a designation for when priests were caught and had to be moved around. It’s within these moments that the drama of the film builds. We follow, piece-by-piece, as the tables start to turn in the favor of the team. Walls that were once built up in the name of community or institutions start to crumble away. It’s a smart play that gives the audience a chance to discover the clues alongside Robby and his crew.

But as the evidence builds a journalistic issue is brought to the fore that is the crux of the film. The team get to a certain point where they could break a damning story that could help hundreds of people avoid being new victims of the priests right now. But there isn’t enough to seriously make change, argues Baron. It’s about the larger picture and not about locking up a few “bad apples.” Barton and the team can sense that the Catholic Church knew about this and buried the evidence time and time again with either payments to victims and confidentiality agreements or outright power. So instead of rushing to publish the story they continue to sit on the evidence and build the case against the Church even further. But even those on the “Spotlight” team have difficulty with that decision. In one of the most haunting moments we see Carroll looking through documents of the addresses for rehabilitating priests and he suddenly takes off into the middle of the night from his home. He runs down his street, turns and finds the address he’s looking for. It’s a dank, dreary looking home but otherwise normal. The threat of this is very real, and Ruffalo’s Rezendes makes a powerful plea to Robby to publish when the number of priests starts to multiply.

McCarthy has clearly done his research and finds pleasure in depicting what might be ordinary in lesser hands. The film is clearly on the side of the power of investigative journalism, but he doesn’t pull punches in his critiques either. While the aforementioned issue of some victims and potential sources coming to the press and having little to show for it is a major issue, there are other nuanced problems as well. Again and again Robby is railroaded by people who are aghast that a Boston boy is trying to sully the good name of the city or the Catholic Church. There is a condemnation of institutions and the small town mentality that allow these type of situations to proliferate by having key people turn the other way. It’s no different than any number of scandals. What becomes clear is that it would have been incredibly easy for Robby and his team to simply hit a wall and stop. But instead they constantly try to find other ways around issues or people. At one point Rezendes is told by a court clerk that he can’t take important documents outside of the viewing area to make copies, so he empties his wallet and pleads to use the one in the office there instead. Another key issue brought up is that while it is before the internet truly washed out the print newspaper budgets, the Globe clearly has the money and resources–legal and more–to pursue stories that might ruffle serious feathers among their own readership and owners. But other, smaller newspapers simply don’t. This point is made in a humorous fashion a few times but the point hits home to anyone that has seen their own small town newspapers dry up and disappear.

This kind of investigative journalism takes time. Time means paying reporters that have nothing to show for their work except pieces of a story until it becomes something fully formed. It could take months or years for that to happen. While the Globe was able to do the job, it’s a sad state when it makes it clear that this would likely not have been able to be followed through by a smaller outlet.

Ultimately, though, SPOTLIGHT makes for a powerful film that shows the good and the bad of freedom of the press. There isn’t a single dull performance from the impressive cast and everyone seems to be invested, with Ruffalo managing to stand out because he is endlessly watchable while Billy Crudup manages to steal a major scene as an attorney. While you likely know the end of the story it makes it no less thrilling to watch the team break the story. Many will cite influences like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, and there is even a source used by the team that only talks to them over the phone, but it’s clear that McCarthy is able to make his own brand of riveting cinema as well. SPOTLIGHT makes a powerful case for the power of investigative journalism while standing up for what’s right amidst powerful institutions.

SPOTLIGHT expands in theaters today.
Dallas-Ft. Worth: Angelika Dallas, AMC Northpark, Cinemark West Plano

About author

Preston Barta

Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.