Sam Fuller's Park Row and Alan J. Pakula's All the President's Men are proof positive that investigative journalism makes for more exciting cinema. Like great mysteries, these tense workingman procedurals unfold through the slow reveal of critical information, building toward resolutions riddled with moral ambiguity. They retain added resonance due to their parallels with ongoing current events.
Thomas McCarthy's no-nonsense drama Spotlight boils this process down to its base elements. It takes out all of the virtuoso style and pacing and replaces it with pure workmanship, ethics and negotiation of fact. Beginning in July 2001, the film centers on a small group of dedicated Boston Globe reporters known as "Spotlight" who specialize in lengthy investigative pieces targeting everything from police corruption to political malfeasance.
Led by legendary workhorse editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team is made up of tenacious reporters who eat, sleep and breathe the job. Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is a loner, living off of boiled hotdogs and pizza delivery. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) both have families but are rarely seen in that environment. Spotlight is all about being on the job at all times, so McCarthy rarely cuts away to explore his characters' other selves.
When incoming Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) tasks Spotlight with investigating abuse cases involving local Catholic priests, the team discovers a much more elaborate and wide-reaching web of corruption that reaches to the upper echelons of the church. One shred of information leads to another, and eventually the reporters are embroiled in a full-on battle with Boston's most trusted institution and a beloved local Archdiocese.
Spotlight stands out from other newspaper films by examining the strength of efficient top-down leadership. Baron may call the shots initially, but his professional respect for Robinson and Spotlight allows for a working space devoid of micromanagement. Each character thrives within the team construct, with only a few minor disagreements thrown in for dramatic intent. Nothing's personal, except the story.
Paralleling this theme, McCarthy gives his actors plenty of room to explore the quirks and idiosyncrasies of these real-life journalists. Ruffalo seems especially game to go full method with his portrayal of the twitchy Rezendes, the rebel of the bunch. When Robinson sends him out to interview a hard-nosed lawyer played by Stanley Tucci who's defending upwards of 80 abuse victims, Rezendes jumps at the challenge, saying, "I like characters."
If the Globe's journalists are determined to shed light on an epic display of injustice, the Catholic Church is painted as equally adamant about sweeping the truth under the proverbial rug. Yet there are very few actual showdowns in the traditional sense, which gives the film an added sense of realistic tension. Instead, the accumulation of facts and evidence takes precedent. Since Spotlight—which opens Friday, Nov. 13—takes place with one foot in the analog world and one in the digital, this makes for an intriguing time capsule of our not-so-distant past that still seems ancient.
In the end, getting at the truth may offer a momentary victory of conscience, but there's always more to be done. McCarthy hammers this point home with a final scene that segues to another unseen chapter of archiving, researching and defending more victims as they find the courage to come forward.
Spotlight gets bogged down in ponderous speechifying in the final act, but it's still a fine addition to the newspaper film canon nonetheless. There's a lot to be said for a movie this interested in the stress of mental exertion. It's literally all work and no play, exemplifying the kind of extreme dedication that broke a decade-spanning case wide open.