-from contributing editor, Andy Ray
Coming on the heels of James Vanderbilt’s Truth, Thomas McCarthy’s Spotlight is an infinitely better take on the journalism industry. This time, we follow the Spotlight team, the investigative arm of the Boston Globe, as they expose the Catholic Church’s cover-up of the Boston pedophilia priest scandal in 2001 and 2002. Spotlight is the best picture about newspaper journalism since Alan J. Pakula’s All The President’s Men in 1976 – and it is equally as strong as that film in setting the standard for this genre.
The Spotlight team consists of four experienced, eager journalists, who believe in the media’s inherent duty to inform the public – at a deeper level than merely reporting the day’s news. These four correspondents are played by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James. Among them, Ruffalo stands out as Michael Rezendes, a gung-ho investigative hack who is so good at his work he could have been a police detective. Ruffalo has been a top-notch actor for years (“You Can Count On Me,” “Shutter Island”), but he’s always flown just under the public radar. Until now. This role will garner him a Best Actor nomination, and he may very well win.
Into this tightly-knit group of newspaper gumshoes comes new editor Marty Baron (an excellent Liev Schreiber) – the first Jewish editor the Globe has ever had. And, he’s not even a Boston native. At first, Baron’s serious, stilted demeanor doesn’t play well with the chummy spotlight group. But soon we realize Baron’s goals for Spotlight are above and beyond anything they’ve ever accomplished before. Baron doesn’t simply want Spotlight to expose a few local priests for pedophilia, nor does he even want to expose their cover-up by local cardinal Bernard Law (veteran stage actor Len Cariou). No, the new editor actually delays publication of Spotlight’s work to allow them time to trace the cover-up to the highest echelon of the Catholic Church in America. While Truth lamented the sad state of journalism in today’s internet culture, Spotlight illuminates the infinite possibility of journalism as a pillar of a free and just society.
We follow the team members as they chase leads from victims to attorneys to City Hall to priests to fellow writers. Writer/director Tom McCarthy takes the somewhat uninteresting methodical nature of journalistic investigation and makes it edge-of-your-seat thrilling – just as Ben Affleck did with hostage negotiation in Argo. When the Globe delivery trucks leave the printing press building in the wee hours of the morning with the Spotlight expose on the front page, I was as enthusiastic as I was when Rocky Balboa entered the ring the first time, back in 1976. And as with most great films, the ending is fantastic – a little unexpected, and very fulfilling, as it verifies the hard work of the Spotlight team.
So yes, Spotlight is a fast-paced “busy” picture, but I was particularly moved by the slower scenes, late in the film, as the investigators uncovered church-wide corruption. As native Bostonians, all four members of the team (and likely most of the rest of the Globe staff) had grown up Catholic. To see the fruits of their labor take down one of the cornerstones of their upbringing affects each of them. In much the same way All The President’s Men depicted the dismantling of an institution so sacred as the presidency of the United States, Spotlight details the downfall of the largest religious institution in the world. As journalists, each member knows he or she is performing vital work, however the result will be something akin to telling a four-year-old there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.
By showing us this human side of our protagonists, Spotlight achieves greater impact than I expected. This is one of the year’s best films, and should become a staple in high school and college journalism classes. Look for it at Oscar time.
Andy Ray’s film reviews also appear on website TheFilmYap.com.