film review: spotlight
Journalists can change the world. At least that was once true, when in 2001 the “Spotlight” team of The Boston Globe – through months of investigation – exposed the systematic child abuse of over 70 priests in the highly Catholic Boston area. If true stories of Pulitzer-winning journalism are your cup of tea, you’ll find Spotlight engrossing. It is an adeptly made film, both intelligent and concise. The filmmaking might be conventional (there is nothing visually or structurally radical here) but the film earns its Best Picture nomination nonetheless.
The longest-running investigative unit in US history, code-named “Spotlight”, undertakes a huge project deemed essential by new head editor, Marty Baron (played with wonderful subtlety by Liev Schreiber). Baron notices a newspaper column in the Globe about eccentric lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). Garabedian says that he has documents proving that Cardinal Francis Law knew about a child-molesting priest and did nothing to stop him. The Globe has produced merely two articles about this controversy: it takes Baron’s fresh perspective and the grit of the “Spotlight” team to excavate this big story buried by time, misconceptions and corruption. If the Globe tries to obtain these documents, they will be essentially suing the Catholic Church
Instead of a mere procedural, Spotlight investigates how all four investigative journalists were affected by their forays into dangerous territory—the tone feels as tense as a thriller, though no guns are involved. Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, a handsome terrier of a journalist, who unrelentingly pursues Garabedian, pressuring him to divulge information crucial to the investigation. Rezendes, who’s been holding onto the idea that he’ll go back to mass one day, becomes disenchanted with the Church as a result of what the team’s investigation brings to light – as do the rest of the “Spotlight” team.
Michael Keaton’s personal renaissance (after the success of 2014’s Oscar-winner, Birdman) continues here with his everyman Robby Robinson, team leader of “Spotlight.” Brian d’Arcy James (Game Change) is family man Matt Carroll, an underrated actor playing an understated role really well. There’s also John Slattery (Mad Men) as Ben Bradlee Jr., the editor the “Spotlight” team must convince to keep the story going despite the implications and challenges of a heavily-Catholic city that makes up the Globe’s readership. As for the one female in the basement-level investigation headquarters, Rachel McAdams (The Notebook) plays Sacha Pfeiffer, the team’s considerate door knocker charged with visiting victim’s houses. As she is the only female journalist portrayed in the film, her role is worth examining in further detail.
As always, McAdams is intelligent and likeable, with a softness to her incredibly beautiful face, her valuable talent both garnering a Best Supporting Actress nod and bringing a different kind of heroism to this story—that is, female journalist in a man’s world. The events in this film took place in 2001, so that’s where we’re at with progress and equality. She’s the reserved voice of reason, oftentimes leading the conversation in a roomful of men. In one scene, Robby sits by her side, lying back as he lets his brilliant journalist interrogate the president of Boston College High School, where another case of child sex abuse warrants dissecting. McAdams plays Pfeiffer as both capable and vulnerable, and Pfeiffer is treated by her peers with the same respect as the male journalists. Her home life is shown in the same depth as Rezendes’, perhaps a conscious effort to delve into the personal lives of both male and female characters equally. If this weren’t a true story, other female journalists might have written in with the same realism and intelligence.
It’s hard to fault with this film. Drawn into both the journalists’ and the victims’ lives, their anger becomes our own. The film concludes with a list of all the places child abuse has occurred in the Church, including Australia. But this film isn’t just about child abuse. It’s about journalism and what it can do for humanity. Where films like Suffragette or Trumbo were creatively broad and a little flat, the solid filmmaking, high stakes maintained in every structural step and fully fleshed out characters elevate Spotlight to that Oscar-worthy level.