Film Review: Spotlight

by Carrie Kahn on November 13, 2015

Power of the press is real hero of McCarthy’s inspiring, well-executed picture

The Boston Globe Spotlight team (from left: Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, and Mark Ruffalo) uncover a major story.

Writer/director Tom McCarthy is perhaps best known for his character-driven films like The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Up. With his new film Spotlight, though, McCarthy stresses the story itself, yet his film proves just as successful – if not actually more so – than his earlier pictures that favored rich character development. Indeed, not since 1976’s All the President’s Men has a film so deftly and engagingly captured the heart-pounding excitement of intrepid reporters uncovering a major story of enormous national significance.

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (who, not coincidentally, penned scripts for TV’s Law and Order: SVU) have crafted a superb based-on-real-events screenplay that unfolds like the best dramatic procedurals and layered mysteries. Spotlight takes its name from its subject: the Spotlight investigative team of the Boston Globe. McCarthy and Singer and an A-list cast dramatize the events of the early 2000s, when the Globe uncovered a pedophilia scandal and cover-up of epic proportions in the Catholic church in Boston, and, ultimately, beyond.

Attorney Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, r.) gives reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) a tip on obtaining some vital documents.

The top notch cast includes Michael Keaton as Spotlight editor Robby Robinson and Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the Globe’s new editor, a man who is thoughtful and measured, but who, as a Jewish outsider from Florida, is immediately regarded with suspicion both by the locals in the predominantly Catholic newsroom and, of course, by the city itself. Rachel McAdams, thankfully done with her True Detective sulking, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, and an especially excellent Mark Ruffalo round out the Spotlight team, each turning in the solid, no-nonsense performances demanded by the sharp, forthright script. Ruffalo, however, does get an applause-worthy newsroom tirade monologue that will surely be remembered at Oscar time. In smaller, but no less important roles, Stanley Tucci plays beleaguered attorney Mitch Garabedian, fighting tirelessly for the abuse victims, and Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup are also terrific as lawyers with different agendas, but who both are of particular use to the reporters.

No one actor or character stands out more than the other here, though; the film is truly an ensemble piece, which is fitting, given that it’s a story of collaboration and teamwork. The Spotlight team’s coverage eventually earned a Pulitzer Prize, but McCarthy’s film concerns the events preceding that milestone. What we witness here are dedicated reporters slowly piecing together a story they come to realize is much bigger than any of them initially thought. How the reporters painstakingly chase leads, put clues together, and research and develop the story is absolutely riveting, especially as we see the tight-knit, insular world of Catholic Boston stand in their way, as key city and Church players strive to protect themselves and their sacred institution.

Spotlight reporters (from left: Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’Arcy James) turn analyzing data into a nail-biting experience.

What makes McCarthy’s film more distinctive than similarly powerful investigative whodunits like All the President’s Men or David Fincher’s Zodiac, though, is that while it certainly does succeed on that level, it also captures a unique period in history when print investigative journalism was just on the edge of being superseded by the Internet. McCarthy’s film celebrates and honors the skills, integrity, and perseverance of print journalists, but, at the same time, the viewer, on the other side, 15 years later, can’t help but feel a certain nostalgia and melancholy about what has been lost, as daily newspapers have faced cuts to personnel, content, and, in many cases, complete destruction. The experience of watching the film, then, becomes all the more powerful because of the conflicting emotions the picture elicits.

Indeed, it is to McCarthy’s credit that he never loses the viewer’s interest, even when showing the journalists’ workaday tasks of setting up interviews, combing through files, and compiling and analyzing information. Writers, researchers, clerks, and librarians are the superheroes here. A scene in which the reporters input data into an Excel spreadsheet in hopes of yielding a certain result, for example, is more breathlessly thrilling than any action sequence on screen this year. Notepads, pens, flip phones, and telephone directories have never been as sexy or as urgent as they are here.

The urgency of the picture, then, is what draws in viewers immediately, holds them, and makes them not want to blink until the film’s end. Only then can viewers let out their breath and realize that they’ve just seen something extraordinary: a stunning portrait of the power of the written word.


Spotlight opens today at Bay Area theaters.

Carrie Kahn

Moving from the arthouse to the multiplex with grace, ease, and only the occasional eye roll.

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