I saw “Spotlight” last weekend and haven’t been able to get it out of my head since. So I thought I’d write a review of it, my first film review in years (I used to write them all the time).
If you’re not familiar with the premise, it focuses on the Spotlight investigative reporting unit at The Boston Globe (reporters Matt Carroll, Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer and their editor, Walter V. Robinson) and its investigation of allegations of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church. The investigation won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 and helped uncover wider abuse on a global scale.
Journalists of my generation arguably don’t (didn’t!) have a “newspaper film” for our era. There’s “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men,” both far removed (socially, culturally and technologically) from our current time. Even “Spotlight,” taking place 13-14 years ago in 2001-02, feels slightly dated, a definite product of its time (which is an observation, not a quality judgment; it could be called a period piece).
The organic growth of the investigation, done at the urging of new editor Marty Baron (who’s now leading The Washington Post), is something amazing to watch. It’s a testament to the menial work involved in deep digging; in one scene, the team works through a spreadsheet line by line, collecting what they need. Old newspaper clips are dug out of the archives, doors are knocked on, sources are met in coffee shops and parks and offices, and legal documents are sifted through. When the final story lands on doorsteps, you know where it came from.
And the story is what’s essential here. The focus is always on the story. We get to know the reporters and editors (an assortment of outsiders with a fresh perspective, lapsed Catholic Boston-breds and veterans who maybe should have pursued this story sooner). We appreciate their motivations and feel for them as they hit roadblocks and try to wade through paperwork and finesse sources. But they are not the focus; it is the story. And the actors (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber and Brian d’Arcy James play the Globe reporters/editors) successfully convey the motivations of the staff without making it all about them.
Finally, everything feels earned. When there is an outburst, it springs from genuine, earned frustration, not self-righteous grandstanding. The obstacles to the story are not death threats or bricks through windows, but bureaucratic red tape and slammed doors. It feels raw and earthy. The basement Spotlight newsroom feels lived in, the journalists dress like they don’t care how they look (and why would they?) and the city of Boston feels organic and alive. The abuse that is the focus of the investigation is like a horde of cockroaches that scatters when you turn on the light or lift up the rug. There is no sudden horrific epiphany or silver bullet, just confirmations of what these people had already figured out for themselves but needed proof of to include in the report.
This is the kind of film that necessitates discussion and reflection. We may not see another film about journalism this good for a long, long time.