If Thomas McCarthy’s maligned fairy tale The Cobbler provided any help in securing money to put his script Spotlight in front of cameras, it was worth every disparaging word thrown its way. Co-written with Josh Singer, this 2013 Blacklist alum proves an informative and accurate look at the investigative journalism process as well as an engrossing exposé that refuses to let go despite our knowing the story it exposed. Much like famed predecessor All the President’s Men, audiences arrive keenly aware of the Catholic Church scandal at its center from multiple sources over the past decade. Only now, though, can we experience the legwork and perseverance of those Boston Globe reporters who broke through the Vatican’s systemic cover-up and finally vindicated thousands of victims the world over.
It’s fitting that McCarthy is the one to tell this story being that he played a Baltimore reporter with the exact opposite moral credibility in “The Wire” as the people depicted here in Boston—due to a system that fostered such. The way he captures the newsroom atmosphere reminded me a lot of David Simon‘s show’s fifth season and I have to believe McCarthy used some of that to build upon. Little things like Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) hitting the floor to work a coworker for information on a staff meeting or Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) innocently asking a researcher for a professional tip and being bombarded by everyone in earshot asking “Why?” shows the great hybridization of comradery and competition the job’s curiosity level fosters.
Starting with the threat of cutbacks before delving into “Spotlight” and their work ethic/time-consuming process makes us wonder how many news houses could do the same today when bottom-lines and clicks are even more prevalent than the film’s turn of the century setting. We meet the group—led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton) and rounded out by Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) alongside Rezendes and Carroll—because new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is too. This whole endeavor could have been cut short with Baron’s penchant for layoffs seeing “Spotlight’s” six-month to a year research schedule erased from existence. Instead he sees their potential to make a mark sooner than later. And while going after the Catholic Church in Boston was risky, the quartet jumped right in.
The script deftly positions the journalism team as underdogs with a steep climb and little to no help. We begin questioning Robby’s boss Ben Bradlee Jr.’s (John Slattery) allegiances as they concern the news and his religion; we accept those on the inside actually doing something despite the leverage the Church imposes upon them as smart to be skeptical of outsiders looking for information (Stanley Tucci‘s attorney Mitchell Garabedian who represents eighty-plus plaintiffs against their abuser Father Geoghan); and we become cognizant of just how deep the cover-up—explicitly and implicitly—goes as well as how complicated it proves. Some like lawyer Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup) show how complicity isn’t the whole story, though. They simply found the silent response to their screams too deafening to keep yelling.
It’s hardly surprising that what starts as an assignment—a juicy case to explore at most—spirals into a quest with personal stakes. This is Boston and the Church has immense reach within the city to both expose children to pedophilia and pretend nothing happened. Sacha attends weekly mass with her Nana and fears telling her what she’s investigating. Matt makes the insane discovery that one of the “hospitals” to “reform” guilty priests is literally around the corner from his house. Mike sees this grave injustice as a story to put his entire heart and soul behind once the estimates of offending priests rise from the initial one to thirteen and beyond. And Robby may be hit hardest when he uncovers the Globe‘s role in the whole ordeal.
There might not be a “Deepthroat” per se, but Spotlight has its share of insiders whose exposure is even more compromising. We’re talking adults with spouses and children who’ve blocked their traumatic experience from their minds being asked to retell a story some already did to no avail. Mike, Sacha, and the rest must prove they can be trusted, that they won’t give up despite 9/11 pooling newsroom resources and postponing research, and each interviewee has to weigh his/her options as far as letting names be used to testify regardless of what such an act against the Church would do to personal lives in a city of devout Catholics. As for the lawyers holding the smoking gun, they could be disbarred for talking against confidentiality. Stakes are huge.
McCarthy, cast, and crew continuously driving home the notion that it’s time to no longer stay silent is crucial to the film’s success. They let emotion rise to the surface and make this case more than a mystery to solve. This is about endangering the lives of adolescents looking to the clergy as role models they’d do anything for in order to stay in good graces. Baron realizes the potential because he has no connection to the Church as a Jewish out-of-towner entering with the objective viewpoint of telling the news in a way the media has sworn to uphold. Did he know the conspiracy would go beyond Cardinal Law (Len Cariou)? No. But when it’s exposed that it does he’s perfectly positioned to ensure the digging intensifies.
I can’t think of a better term than eye opening when it comes to watching some of the supporting cast willfully deny or deflect time and time again. Juxtapose them with victims and you start to see how malicious things were—how this legacy of protection snowballed out of control into a full-blown criminal conspiracy. We feel the pain of Neal Huff’s Phil Saviano and understand how so many would deem him a loose-cannon if coming from a position of disbelief. And we cry with Michael Cyril Creighton‘s Joe Crowley and Jimmy LeBlanc‘s Patrick McSorley (who arrives again later in the background pushing his son on a swing to poignantly show how small a city Boston is when you factor in the scope of these predators running wild).
Spotlight‘s success goes beyond its story to each and every actor involved for a true ensemble so passionate about its work that everyone agreed they’d vie for Supporting Cast awards rather than singling out a Lead. The evolution of characters like Tucci’s Garabedian purely based on perception is amazing—from crackpot eccentric to smartest, most empathetic in the room. The same goes for standouts Ruffalo, moving from pure enthusiasm to emboldened duty, and Keaton, whose interest grows enough so that bridges to his past once held dear become expendable in the face of the truth. With so much editorializing and click-bait these days, we all need a film like this to cleanse our palettes and remember the integrity that existed before the entertainment industry cannibalized our news.