“Spotlight” review: The Work of Journalism is at the Centre of Tom McCarthy’s Moving & Necessary Film

spotlight review daniel dewar filmaday

Access is a recurring theme in modern journalism discourse—direct access to source, access to content and access to the abilities to churn out journalistic content at an alarming rate—where it is no longer a matter of if but when we reach peak content. The argument against this mass of mass media follows the thinking that the ease of access—the ease in which we can consume and create journalistic content—means the work of journalism is easier than before and it’s output is more lightweight. Journalism as a line of work and the work of journalism—that is the work of investigation, thinking and writing—makes up the core of Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight”, a film that embraces the idea of work as its artifice in telling the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into the Catholic Church’s’ cover-up of child abuse in and around Boston.

The initial findings of the report were published in 2002, a Pulitzer-winning body of journalism that would form the genesis of over 400 articles that would later be published at the Globe on the subject. The film is named after the investigative team that worked on the story, a four-person unit that would invest months and years into producing their work. They are in the middle of investigating an inconsistency in Boston Police Department reporting figures when they are pushed by the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to dig deeper into recent reports about a pedophile priest. Baron, newly arrived in Boston by way of the New York Times and Miami Herald, is looking to make an impression—a fact not lost on attorneys representing the Catholic Church, who are also eager to suggest that a Jew might want to provoke the Globe’s Catholic readers, who make up fifty percent of its readership. McCarthy’s sensibility of this suggestion is true—Baron is not interested in targets but the truth.

Working with Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), an attorney representing numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by priests, the spotlight team—editor Marty Robinson (Michael Keaton) and journalists Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—begin to find the small strands that would become an immeasurable body of work. They find patterns in the designation of priests no longer in active duty in the annual church listings and in doing so are able to ascertain when crimes may have been committed and cross-check those names with lawyers that secretly represented them. They contact survivor groups who provide names for other survivors, some willing to talk, some not. Pfeiffer and Caroll spend a large portion of the film on the street, door-knocking. Their work—and that of Ruffalo and Keaton—uncovers a systemic cover-up of child sexual abuse within the Boston archdiocese.

This work is the film’s artifice for McCarthy to explore themes of traditionalism, faith, trust and cultural mistrust. In the opening scene, the Church’s representative, Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), is reassuring a young boy and his mother that the offending priest has been removed from the parish and this type of incident will never occur again. As we now know, abusive priests are either moved to another parish or have to undertake the Church’s own in-house rehabilitation program—both of which happens without the involvement of criminal law.

McCarthy frames the Catholic Church—or the archdiocese as represented by Cardinal Law—as an institution that has earned its cultural mistrust and has punished those that had faith in it. McCarthy’s ultimate target is not the broad stroke of Catholicism or organised religion but the system within a specific organisation that allowed such a culture to exist. The images created by McCarthy are not evocations of the film’s broader social implications—they are the aesthetic result of his obsession with journalistic work: functional and revealing. On the morning of September 11, 2001—an event that would delay the Catholic Church investigations—Baron parks his car at the Globe. McCarthy uses a wide shot to show the carpark, the Globe offices and the skyline of Boston in the background, foreshadowing the events of that morning. The AOL billboard captured in the frame also suggests the impact internet journalism will have on reporting in the post-911 era.

In another bold directorial choice, McCarthy frames the heads of the actors in the top quarter of the screen allowing their bodies to appear disproportionately oversized and fill the frame. This allows for the actors to give full-bodied performances that requires an awareness of their own self, their character and the other performers, giving a more interesting visual palette than single-character, reverse-shot photography that has become common in film and television.

“Spotlight” features performances from all of its cast delivered in a manner of performance that calls back to the post-war-cinema style of acting—before the method, where an actor’s inner-life would threaten the involuntary outer-performance. “Spotlight’s” performers are working in this vein (except for Ruffalo, whose tic-driven performance sits jarringly against his peers, although I assume this is based on the real-life Resendez). Keaton, McAdams and Schreiber in particular, give wonderfully still, nuanced performances that says as much about the character as it does the actor. There’s one scene with Keaton that stands out when he makes a horrific realisation about the story and his friend. This would be an easy scene to ruin through over-acting—too much facial movement and it’s the work of an actor too keenly projecting subtext. Keaton manages this scene by doing nothing at all—the realisation is made but his face never changes.

There are a couple of missteps in McCarthy’s writing and directorial choices. “Spotlight” would have been better served without having an original score or soundtrack—the barbarism of its subject does not require music to remind us of its solemnity.

Each of the principal characters, Baron excluding, identify as “lapsed” Catholics. Pfeiffer even discusses going to church with her mother because it gives her mother comfort, yet McCarthy never lets us see what she thinks about the revelations. Beyond her dedication to the truth of the story we never glimpse what reporting on the story means to her.

McCarthy makes up for this by including the film’s most powerful scene when Pfeiffer takes home an early print of the Globe for her grandmother (Eileen Padua) to read. She sits at the table while her grandmother studies the article. It’s a bold scene that features no action except an older woman reading a newspaper, her resolve in her faith slowly disappearing in the face of pure barbarism.

We are told at the end of the film that Cardinal Law was punished for his actions by being offered a position in the Vatican, where he remains to this day. We are then shown a list of some 200 hundred cities around the world where similar cover-up behaviour has been identified within the Catholic Church. Towards the end of the film, the characters question their own morality by asking where were they when all of this was happening decades ago. Here, McCarthy is pointing the lens at himself and other filmmakers. The predatory and immoral behaviour of the Catholic Church is nothing new and yet it’s a subject Hollywood has had little interest in investigating and McCarthy wants to know why.

He gives us the justification for such intense scrutiny with Pfeiffer’s grandmother—acknowledging the Church’s immorality is worth the hit to faith.