With the onslaught of journalism dramas, there are only quite a few that made their marks in the movie world. Among others, there’s The Insider (1999), Ace in the Hole (1951), Frost/Nixon (2008), and All the President’s Men (1976), which was hailed as THE journo drama by which all journo dramas were measured against. Then here comes Spotlight. Winning scads of guild and critics’ society awards, and recognized as one of the finest films of the year; some might argue that Spotlight might take the crown off the reigning king of journalism drama. Spotlight also arrives at a perfect moment in time. Never in history have newspapers been more endangered than they are now, with printed news being replaced by websites, and their cash-cow advertisements swapped for the likes of Google Ads.
The film recounts the Pulitzer Prize-winning work of The Boston Globe reporters to blow the lid off the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal and expose the widespread cover-up that came with it. Taking place over the course of roughly six months, the film shed light on the work of the Spotlight team, editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who can take up to a year digging deep into investigative features for the paper; when their new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becomes interested in the allegations that Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, safeguarded priests who raped young parishioners, the team begins tracking down victims and anyone else who has evidence of the decades-long transgression.
As with most fact-based films, Spotlight derives much of its simmering intensity from the stripped-down retelling of how these journalists revealed the cover-up. And because Spotlight is set at a time before the Internet was omnipresent, that means a lot of face-to-face interviews, rummaging through court archives and other painstaking investigative work that has a gripping rigor to it. But as was the case with the Globe reporters, director Tom McCarthy isn’t out to unfairly make villains of the Catholic Church or to nullify its good works. Yes, Spotlight is a story of corruption and betrayal of the ugliest sort, and fully evidenced at that, but it never resorts to low blows nor cash in on a volatile situation for melodrama, as that would have been fairly easy to do with so many heartbreaking stories. It doesn’t get gaudy, repugnant or anything resembling exploitative. Instead, the reporters’ investigation, their diligent, unglamorous work was brought center stage.
McCarthy’s ensemble-sensitive work was largely aided by the cast, there seems to be no lead actor, more like a handful of strong performances supporting each other. Ruffalo gave a compelling portrayal, his Rezendes is equal parts charming and tenacious; Keaton, who seems to have truly gotten back on his feet, was equally forceful; McAdams and Schreiber were effectively subdued; and D’Arcy and Stanley Tucci (who plays Mitchell Garabedian, a victims’ lawyer), were likewise riveting. It’s no wonder that the cast of Spotlight was frontrunner for most Best Ensemble acting category! As for the characters, little is known of them outside their work, but doesn’t that embody the passion and dedication these consummate professionals gave? Spotlight underscored how professionalism can be the sledgehammer that breaks through barriers and strikes at apparently impenetrable institutions. Here’s hoping that this brand of journalism may continue to lift the veil off future injustices.