I don’t know if film can ever accurately portray a real-world job. The music, the time compression, and the demands of coherent narrative all introduce an unavoidable unreality. But speaking as a reporter myself, I can’t really think of a better movie portrait of journalism than Spotlight. David Simon called it porn for newspapermen, which sounds about right to me.
Nor has a film cut me as deeply in quite a while. Spotlight draws its title form the investigative unit at The Boston Globe that, in 2002, shocked the world and rocked the Catholic Church to its core when it reported on the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in Boston. That investigation kicked off a cascade of revelations across the globe, and the final credits show a list of all the cities where abuse was uncovered. It takes up three columns on the screen and goes on for several frames.
I’m not Catholic, but I was raised Presbyterian, so I get how a religion can weave itself into your life, especially in childhood. Yes, the Church hierarchy deliberately used legal wrangling to keep things under wraps, and shuffled abusive priests from parish to parish. But it was really the human trust and faith people placed in the Church that allowed the abuse to continue so long, which makes the betrayal all the more colossal.
In one scene, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), two of the Spotlight reporters, discuss their fraught attachment to the Church. Mike reflects that, despite falling away from it in adulthood, he always assumed he’d find his way back to Catholicism eventually. But the investigation has wrecked that possibility beyond recovery, leaving emptiness in its wake. At another point, the film cuts between interviews with two victims, now in adulthood, and the quiet tragedy is almost unbearable. Finally, when Sacha’s aunt reads the full investigation in the morning paper, no words need be said: we simply watch the aunt’s crumbling expression, and watch Sacha watch her.
With careful brush strokes, Spotlight paints how deeply Catholicism saturated the fabric of Boston, crowding out any possibility of suspicion or critique. When the film opens, it’s clear all the pieces of the scandal are already there, right below the surface, just waiting to be seen. A columnist at The Globe has published an article on one instance of abuse, and everyone knows there’s a court battle going on to see if the records can be made public. But its Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who is Jewish and The Globe’s new chief, who intuits that the Spotlight team should redirect itself to that story. Later, a crucial source is Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an Armenian lawyer who worked with abuse victims for years. There’s a strong implication that it took outsiders like these to initially pierce the veil, and ask the questions that needed to be asked.
The other two members of Spotlight are Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), a ruffled shoeleather reporter, and Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), the leader of the team. Robby’s good friend is Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), another editor who provides support at crucial moments. All the performances, including the bit parts by actors like Michael Cyril Creighton and Billy Crudup, are solid. But Ruffalo stands out as a classic journalism character: Mike is an introvert and a ball of awkward, nervous energy. But he’s also deeply empathetic and bull-headedly determined: he even sleeps outside a court office to get first crack at some documents when they go public. Meanwhile, Keaton is quietly moving as a Boston native – accent and all – who must reckon with how profoundly both his profession and he himself failed for so long to break the story.
It’s worth comparing Spotlight to Truth, another recent film about real-life journalism. I was mildly positive on the latter: I thought it portrayed a series of understandable but not ideal judgment calls, which left its characters vulnerable to a political hit job. Others were not so keen on it. But there’s absolutely no doubt that it’s Spotlight that shows gold standard journalism at work. The investigation goes on for months, gathering the pieces with slow, grinding deliberateness. More than once, Robby rebuffs the team’s eagerness to publish, insisting they nail down sources and quotes for every last abuser in the story (there were almost 90), and ultimately get confirmation of the numbers from inside the Church’s own legal team.
Which is not to say Spotlight avoids ideological stances: its assessment of religious and city officials is brutal, and it even implies the scandal emerged from the very circuitry of Catholic theology and the celibacy vow. But it has far more grace than Truth’s brash hagiography, and draws out its points through the subtext of scenes and the warp and woof of dialogue.
The screenplay, by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer, is a well-oiled machine, drawing emotional resonances out of juxtapositions, while coherently connecting the logistical dots of an enormously complex investigation. McCarthy also brings a steady and understated hand as the director, and accomplishes a seemingly remarkable feat. He builds genuine narrative tension out of the paper-pushing, spreadsheet-reviewing drudgery of daily journalism.
I’m not sure Spotlight qualifies as entertainment, but it damn sure qualifies as art.