This well-received docudrama, directed and co-written, with Josh Singer, by Thomas McCarthy, is a fine example of “journalism” cinema, where dogged reporters overcome seemingly insurmountable barriers to expose corruption. In this case, the story they are pursuing is the Catholic Church’s systemic cover-up of possibly hundreds of cases of child abuse by priests in Boston over a 30-year period. After the articles were published, around Christmas, 2001, many victims from all over the country went public with their stories.
The work was done by the “Spotlight” team of the Boston Globe, a unit of investigative reporters headed by “Robby” Robinson, played by Michael Keaton. The rest of the team is played by Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James and, in the “lead” role of what is really an ensemble film, Mark Ruffalo.
The story is dense in detail, and requires constant attention to follow. Every few minutes the team makes a new discovery in which an obscure character’s name is mentioned, and I had to check the index cards in my brain to get them straight, not always successfully. But in nearly every case, it is vital to the investigation. More importantly, McCarthy’s script avoids the kind of metronomic push-along of TV crime dramas where one-dimensional characters nonchalantly blurt out the most private details of their lives. Obviously McCarthy, who had acted in several episodes of “Law and Order”, knew what he wanted to avoid.
You get a real feel for the reporter’s job, which seems to require actively listening to people, with constant reassurance, to establish a sense of trust. There are more close-up reaction shots, especially of Ruffalo, than in any such film that I can remember. But Tom McArdle’s editing snatches up these moments with brisk precision.
All characters, even the minor ones, have the texture of a real person’s life. A major theme is the virtual infusion of the city of Boston deep within the souls of its inhabitants, including every worker at the Globe. Everyone, that is, with the sole exception of Marty Baron, the new Executive editor, played by Live Schreiber, who has been brought in from Miami by the owners. But he soon learns, along with the others, that the most dominant, almost the defining feature of the city is the Catholic church. McCarthy powerfully dramatizes the extent that so many of the people involved, even abuse victims or their families, are held back because telling the truth would almost amount to doing injury to the city they love.
We see that the team functions as part of the Globe, but is really an independent unit. Their job is to break the big stories, and Keaton has to work hard to get that precious extra time they need to deliver the goods. While the investigation is shown in convincing detail, scenes of the private lives of the team are sketchy and rushed. I was glad, though, because this part is usually just dull whining about why mommy or daddy isn’t home, or that somebody’s sex life is disturbed. McCarthy wisely chose not to slacken the main story line with this stuff, thereby maximizing impact at the climax. Still, he couldn’t avoid the negative effect: the pace is relentless, the details complex and there’s little time to catch your breath.
The only backstory for any of the main characters is a secret from Keaton’s past, which is revealed slowly. I find that such surprises often enrich a second viewing of a film; I watch the actor’s performance because I’m seeing it with knowledge that I didn’t have the first time. But surprisingly, considering how its discovery answers questions raised by the other team members – and which gives Ruffalo the big showboat speech of the film, his best shot for an Oscar nod – nothing really dramatic happens afterwards. Keaton seems quietly embarrassed about it, but that’s all.
But, ultimately, there’s this other nagging question: what is the purpose of docudramas anyway, especially when the events portrayed are recent and most of the real people involved are still available? More than most, Spotlight justifies itself with a focus on the profession of journalism, on its unsung heroism and the perseverance of reporters in the face of overwhelming odds. But, even with a script that struggles to present all sides with fairness, there is an inherent bias in the form itself. Inevitably, all of the abused are blended into a single fictionalized “victim” whose unchallenged accusations are true, and who want nothing more than justice in its purest form; as contrasted with a decaying, corrupt institution whose sole purpose is to preserve its power and wealth. At least that’s the impression I’m left with. Like the real “Spotlight” team, the filmmakers deliver the goods too, but more excitingly, in only two hours, and without those extraneous and morally murky details of documented history that could spoil our entertainment.