Films released in 2015 had their share of eye-catching and cinematic moments, from the fiery sandstorm of Mad Max: Fury Road to the natural beauty of Clouds of Sils Maria. For all its numerous gifts and assets, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight wouldn't join that list. It's a thorough expose of a great crime, but it's not a cinematographer's film, as exemplified by what I found to be the key recurring image in the film; a stack of files. A bunch of papers contained in manila folders and held together by a rubber band doesn't exactly leap off screen, but the repeated shots of stacks and libraries of these folders indicate the vastness of the horrific crimes and cover-ups exposed by the heroic journalists that make up the cast, as well as makes the viewer wonder what other injustices are languishing in dark basements and lament the dwindling workforce necessary to shine a light on them. To watch Spotlight is to be morally exhausted, to be absolutely wrung out by the lengths humans will go to do nothing.
A clinical but enthralling and painstakingly depiction of the Boston priest sex abuse epidemic, McCarthy begins his film with the aftermath of one such crime. In the presence of the violated children, a church official speaks soft words of contrition to the mother, the cops look the other way, and the offender leaves free. Many years later, this scenario, having already played out hundreds of times, continues to play out hundreds of times more until, at the turn of the century, the Boston Globe hires a new editor.
Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), a never-married Jewish man from Miami, joins the Globe in 2000. His outsider status is interpreted by the other journalists as the first sign of layoffs and buyouts, and Baron's cold manner doesn't allay anyone's concerns. Robby Robinson, lead of the investigative Spotlight team, has plenty to worry about, as his team consumes vast resources in months-long stories. However, Baron proves to be an ally, and the new editor is curious why a recent story on serial rapist and priest John Goeghan warranted so little paper space. The Spotlight team, consisting of Robinson, Michael Renzedes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) thus begin uncovering a scandal that would rock the city to its core.
That process, of digging up leads and following up with them and making phone calls and poring over records, is meticulously documented by McCarthy. Doors are knocked, coffee is drank, pavement is pounded. It's miraculous that all this is never boring for a single second. The easy comparison is All The President's Men or The Insider, but the desperate moral clarity of Spotlight elevates it above those earlier films. To that end, McCarthy includes characters that are shouting into a hurricane, exhausted by years of talking to people that don't want to hear what they're saying and skeptical that the Spotlight team is any different. Stanley Tucci plays Mitch Garabedian, a lawyer for victims besieged by the workload and distrustful of everyone after years of inattention to the cancer at the center of his city. Neal Huff is achingly sympathetic as Phil Saviano, a representative of Survivor Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) interviewed by the Spotlight team. A former victim and present advocate, Saviano is initially rehearsed and prepared, giving a presentation that he's plainly given many times before, but his professionalism dissolves when the journalists keep asking him if he's sure about this or that detail, unleashing a frustration onto them of someone who is sick of trying to get people to believe him. Characters like Saviano and Garabedian, as well as other former victims, put a human face on the stakes and spur the team to continue pressing forward.
Spotlight is interested in more than the trail of human misery the church left in its wake. It also wants to know how this could've happened. The crimes themselves, thoroughly documented by dozens of now-adult victims ready to share their story, are serious and newsworthy enough. What made, and makes, the Catholic church sex abuse so distinctive is the extent to which it was covered up and enabled by the entire Boston community. Here, Spotlight again proves itself worthy to ask these kinds of questions, providing no easy answers and no institution free of corruption. Big law firms, represented by Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), leniently settle cases with the church and take their professional ethics, and the promise of reliable payouts, more seriously than protecting children from rapists. Schools and youth charities unknowingly provide victims and then ignore rumors. The Globe itself is not spared from complicity, as it repeatedly had the chance to investigate and chose not to for its own reasons. The community is happy to look the other way, primarily parents and relatives overwhelmed by the church's grandeur and happy to trade their child's innocence for a friendly meeting with the bishop. At the rotten center is the church, an institution depicted as having a say over all parts of Boston, one that wants its sexually ashamed subjects to focus on the church's good works, and not its shuffling of child rapists from parish to parish, punishment-free. McCarthy gets a complete picture of the city, ticking off all the boxes that would allow this endemic crime to be perpetrated.
The penalty for not playing along might have served as a cheap attempt to generate tension, but McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer are simply operating on a higher plane. No ominous cars are parked on streets, no suspicious characters are shown walking down sidewalks, and no albino monks are hiding in backseats. The power differential between those who look the other way and those who will not accept the status quo is brilliantly juxtaposed throughout the film, mostly revolving around Garabedian. Before his first appearance, he's derided by characters as a kook, and upon Renzedes' first meeting with him, the general shabbiness of his office doesn't allay suspicion. It soon becomes apparent that he earned that reputation by not going along, especially in scenes that take place in MacLeish's sparkling law firm. Scenes at a swanky Catholic charity gala shift back-and-forth between Garabedian and Renzedes eating thin soup in a drafty diner. Garabedian has paid a real economical price by not bowing before the Boston power structure, but he can at least know that he hasn't let a child rapist off the hook. Something as self-evidently right somehow makes him the outlier.
Thankfully, tension is also not generated by that tired conflict of the hard-working character being torn between their families and their jobs. Renzedes makes oblique mention of his fractured personal life, but other than that very small exception, it just doesn't come up for anyone. No spouses or significant others are even cast. No poor actor is given the impossible task of portraying a complaining character who wants someone to spend less time uncovering a crime against humanity and more time at home. McCarthy and Singer must have realized that would've cheapened the seriousness of their film's content, and any sops to home life are blessedly omitted. Character is revealed through action and not human set dressing.
Spotlight's actors are all superbly cast as the various real-life principals, doing honest, low-key work in a dialogue-heavy film. Tucci and Huff are excellent as lights shining in the dark, finally paid attention to by the Spotlight team. McAdams and Keaton separate themselves amongst the Spotlight team characters, with the latter demonstrating an unflappable resolve in the face of repeated entreaties to slow down or pull the trigger too early, and the former full of empathy as the team member tasked with interviewing victim after victim. As the catalyst, Schrieber's Baron never raises his voice, and he is portrayed as a man who never has to. John Slattery is perfectly acerbic in the role of Robinson's boss Ben Bradlee Jr, injecting needed doses of levity. Crudup has been on a tear lately, and he continues on it here, keeping MacLeish from being a well-clad villain but instead is someone captured by the system and mournful of how he got there. Ruffalo was born to play a dogged investigative journalist in Boston, but he's a bit of a weak link, incorporating a facial tic that was distracting at best. Around the edges, Spotlight is packed with fully-realized smaller parts, each one suggesting an alternate film that could've focused on them instead.
As a lapsed Catholic, Spotlight was deeply personal. At one point, Renzedes discusses how he's moved away from the church, but prior to breaking the story, he was sure he would one day go back, if not to believe all the dogma but to be part of the community again. I wrote those exact words seven years ago in one of those banal Facebook chain notes, but like Renzedes, I can't imagine even thinking them again. Forget the amount of faith required to believe in something fundamentally unknowable, an amount I no longer possess. I just don't understand how someone could educate themselves about the sex abuse that plagues the church, and still show up every week and put my envelope in the collection basket. Even with my knowledge of this monstrous crime, I was unprepared for a truly devastating epilogue, and the number of cities like Boston where endemic sex abuse had been uncovered. It left me a sobbing mess in my theater seat. Even with the ostensibly-humanitarian Pope Francis now in the big chair, what has he done about the man at the head of the Boston church during all this, Bernard Law, who now comfortably spends his retirement in a Roman palazzo? The Catholic church repeated this across the globe, and to pretend that it hasn't been going on for at least as long as it's been a central hub of power is pure blindness.
Spotlight is a masterpiece. As a tribute to journalism, it succeeds. As a historical document, it succeeds. As a clarion call to institutional distrust and critical thinking, it succeeds. McCarthy solidifies his status as a quintessentially-American director. His Station Agent captured a misfit's transformation into a neighbor, his Visitor depicted a lonely man discovering the best part of America's promise, and his Win Win embodied the Churchill quote about America doing the right thing, eventually. Spotlight finds the country at its worst and at its best, an enabler of injustice and a righter of wrongs. After masochistically watching McCarthy's earlier 2015 film The Cobbler, I was sure he was deep in the weeds, possibly never to return. After Spotlight, all is forgiven, and then some. A