The most powerful moment of Spotlight comes right at the very end: a title card shows all the places where sexual abuse by Catholic priests has been uncovered. And then another one. And another one. It is a blow aimed straight at the gut, and it works because the trigger for all these discoveries, the unearthing by The Boston Globe‘s investigative unit of the massive amount of abuse in Boston and the subsequent cover-up by the Church (and more specifically Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston), is presented in a straightforward and unsentimental manner in the preceding two hours. Due to the delicate nature of the subject matter, which would lend itself to over-the-top drama in less able hands, the approach by director Tom McCarthy is a prudent one, because matter-of-fact, perhaps even dry recounting of events makes that final moment reverberate long after the credits have stopped rolling. It presents the case at hand as a Boston issue, growing from a singular case to a pattern to mass abuse in the Boston archdiocese. While the seriousness and severity of the allegations mount, the Globe‘s Spotlight investigative team of journalists (and by extension, the audience) see it as a local story. The title cards are just an expansion of the unfolding story, an indictment of the Catholic Church on a global scale, and a perfect final note.
Spotlight starts rolling when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an out-of-towner of Jewish descent, starts his stint as the new editor of The Boston Globe, leading a team of born-and-bred Bostonians in a very Catholic city. It takes this outsider to latch onto a story of a Boston priest accused of sexual abuse, and he puts the Spotlight unit, a team of four investigative journalists at the Globe, on the story after the lawyer (Stanley Tucci) who is acting on behalf of the victims of this Father Geoghan declares that archbishop Cardinal Law knew about the abuse and did nothing. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Spotlight discovers that the abuse is not an isolated incident, and that the cover-up of the many cases by the Church is extensive. The final breakthrough comes when team member Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in perhaps the most showy role of the film) finally gets hold of documents proving the role of the Church in the abuse and the extent to which it kept it under wraps. The film ends when the first story finally goes to print, but subsequent coverage of the story would win the journalists working on it the Pulitzer Prize.
McCarthy chooses to tell the story from the investigative angle of the reporters, which makes the drama of the abuse and its aftermath mostly second-hand, as none of the focal characters lived through it. By restraining the drama for most of the running time, the few scenes that do involve victims become more effective and poignant, emotional reminders of why this was (and is) such an important story to tell, both then and now. It helps that the actors in these small roles provide perhaps the best work of the film. Which isn’t to say the large ensemble of leading and major supporting players (one can argue if the film actually has leading roles) don’t impress. From Keaton to Rachel McAdams, John Slattery to Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup to Mark Ruffalo, everyone in this large cast delivers top-notch work, but largely subdued by the nature of their parts. Only Ruffalo and Tucci escape this, having characters with a little more dramatic flair, but it’s McCarthy’s chosen approach of straightforward earnestness that prevents Spotlight from devolving into an acting battle, choosing to favor story over characters, the somewhat tedious nature of an investigation over the high drama that could have been elicited from a subject like the sexual abuse of children. McCarthy feels (rightfully) that nobody needs to be told that child molestation is terrible and has a dramatic impact on the victims and their families. So when he does punctuate the dramatic, like in those final title cards, the message becomes all the more powerful.
Further sucking out the drama is his choice to give very little face time to the ‘evil’ of the film. Cardinal Law has very few scenes, and Paul Guilfoyle as a shady monsignor is not an overtly bad guy either. Suprisingly, the only real perpetrator in the film that has any actual lines seems honestly convinced he did nothing wrong. No, the evil is mostly spoken of and never shown, akin to David Fincher’s Zodiac, a film with which Spotlight has several parallels. Though Fincher’s film is more arid, both place the focus firmly on the investigation, and both films also keep their bad guys mostly out of the way. And both feature Mark Ruffalo, incidentally. What strikes most, however, is how both films are not very ‘entertaining’ in the common sense of the word. Spotlight is above all a procedural, which gives way to quite a lot of expository (and at times clunky) dialogue. This comes with the territory, but it robs the film of most of its entertainment value. Again, this is a good choice by McCarthy, but might put off some audiences. In a sense, it feels like the kind of adult drama that would have been made in the ’70s (All The President’s Men immediately comes to mind, of course). Spotlight‘s prestige and its possible strong showing at the Oscars, for which it has already been mentioned as a frontrunner, might secure it a better box office haul than Zodiac, but it will be a difficult film to market. It is the kind of film that deserves a wide audience though, an example of solid filmmaking in which ‘solid’ isn’t a pejorative.