It is a surprise that so few films take place in newsrooms, a natural breeding ground for fascinating drama due to journalists’ proximity to great stories. Meanwhile, to read a great newspaper article is to investigate the various angles of a fine narrative: a maze of carefully considered prose, a study of intriguing local characters and, in the most opportune of scenarios, meticulous adherence to the truth. Shattered Glass and Zodiac, two recent films in the genre, are finely tuned dramas that entertain by teasing our proximity to the facts. Unsurprisingly, All the President’s Men (from 1976) still reigns as the model all films about reporting aspire toward.
Tom McCarthy’s new film, Spotlight (Grade: A-), meets the benchmark of Alan J. Pakula’s Watergate thriller, and it does so with an equally unassuming directorial style. All the President’s Men had respect for the process of putting the pieces of a story together, lingering on phone calls placed to Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward. Spotlight, under McCarthy’s direction and Masanobu Takayanagi’s cinematography, is just as impressive as a piece of journalism, letting the camera catch the important details of gut-wrenching testimony without cutting away. The film abides by the long, frustrating process of investigative journalism while never failing to absorb one’s attention.One would be foolish to miss this exceptional journalistic drama, one that is elegant in its understatement.
Spotlight also defies easy categorization for a newsroom film, tracking various people working on a story, rather than focus on one or two lone instigators. Set at the Boston Globe during the second half of 2001, the film spends much of its running time among the four members of an investigative unit whose name doubles as the film’s title. The head of Spotlight is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), wary as the Web cuts into staffing numbers and hesitant of a new editor arriving from Florida, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, commanding and introverted). Robby’s team consists of Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a fidgety workaholic who craves the art and craft of putting a story together and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who arrives to interviews armed with sensitivity and sharp reflexes. Meanwhile, little passes by researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and Globe editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery).
At Baron’s behest, the Spotlight team begins to look for evidence of pervasive pedophilia within the Boston Archdiocese, in the wake of local coverage about a single priest’s abuse. That preliminary Globe article about that one man of faith could have come and gone, but the potential of missing a bigger story bothers the new editor. Soon, Robby, Mike, Sacha and Matt are contacting nervous ex-altar boys, digging through drawers, documents and archives to find evidence, and probing for legal documents that seem increasingly more difficult to find. And, it’s all to break open a story that could inflame a readership consisting of mostly Catholics.
Spotlight is more interested in the protocols of journalism than pushing ahead to a big plot turn. This makes sense when one considers that the film’s director played a reporter in the unhurried fifth season of The Wire, a show known for its attention to occupational detail. McCarthy’s co-wrote the film with another small screen alumnus, The West Wing’s Josh Singer.
Their screenplay hinges on divulging information, yet none of it is hard to follow or feels like exposition; accordingly, subtle and astute visuals help to provide context. The beige, airy layout and glass windows at the Globe office are one aesthetic cue, as are the workspaces of the various characters. (Stanley Tucci gives a strong supporting turn as an anxious, overworked attorney, and the mountains of folders around his desk create a helpful aid to figure out his harried state.) The shadow of tall chapel towers loom over a few scenes, yet there is no leery, sinister music that could grind these images into clichés.
Several of Spotlight’s dramatic turning points, meanwhile, come during scenes without a cut, as the camera slowly backs out from or moves toward the core of part of the newsroom. The spectator becomes a fifth journalist on the Spotlight team. That exceptional attention to detail is also present in the performances, which are staggeringly good. Fresh off his showy turn in Birdman, Keaton gives a terrifically restrained turn here. We can tell that something gnaws at Robbie throughout, giving the character a prickly edge beneath the good-natured camaraderie. The screenplay waits until just the right moment to unleash this inner turmoil.
Meanwhile, McAdams’s work is just as reserved and rich: her portrayal of a journalist is embedded with so many recognizable tics of the trade, that those outside of the profession may not realize just how brilliantly she performs. Watch her in two different Q&As, one with a victim of abuse and one with a priest coming clean, and you will catch some of the year’s most finely tuned instances of acting and reacting. The best of the ensemble, however, is Ruffalo. As the most audibly passionate member of the Spotlight team, the Oscar-nominated actor refines Mike’s antsy state, including a hunched stature and loose tongue, without ever making these qualities feel like tics. There’s a compassionate core to balance out Mike’s perpetual jumpiness.
As a depiction of a true crime investigation, Spotlight neither shies away from some unsettling details nor exploits the testimony of the victims. McCarthy plants us in the midst of devastating interview scenes and lets the people answer questions without a need to cut to a telling reaction shot from the journalist. Similarly even-handed, the Catholic Church is not demonized here. Singer and McCarthy pen some memorable scenes with figures in the upper echelons of the local church that show how systemic the crime was and how shamed even the non-guilty parties felt. These moments, filled with emotional rigor and moral ambiguity, recall director Sidney Lumet’s finer films.
The business-as-usual vibe of the scenes at the newspaper are often presented without propulsive background music. It is one stylistic aspect that may make some confuse the film’s workmanlike traits with a general blandness. Instead, these elements capture the nose-to-the-grind feel of strong journalism, especially with stories where it takes months to research and accumulate valuable information. Those who understand the patience and difficulty of long-form reporting will find Spotlight, a likely end-of-year awards contender, even more thrilling.