Unadorned filmmaking of burnished and unobtrusive professional polish, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a good example of how little you have to do to create an absorbing movie, provided you have the right story and the right cast. Writer-director McCarthy, who, when not being a terrific character actor, spends his time making nice small character dramas (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win), takes for his material here the true story of the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into allegations of child abuse committed by Catholic priests which resulted in a detailed and powerful series of exposés. He, with co-writer Josh Singer (The West Wing), turns this into a movie about people simply doing their jobs, removing all narrative adornments a more conventionally crowd-pleasing picture would require: artificial drama, character arcs, a main character, grand pronouncements, easy symbolism, cheap moralizing. Instead he simply shows us an ensemble of journalists working studiously and methodically, making sure they get the facts right before going to print. They know they’re onto something big, a story of massive importance and moral imperative, but it’s also just their job.
The result of McCarthy’s approach is an inspirational story about journalism at its finest boiled down to tense scenes of research, interviews, and fact checking. This is a procedural about workaday reporters doing the best they can, a movie committed to being something like an accurate portrayal of the daily grind of a noble profession done right. The Globe’s editors (Liev Schreiber, John Slattery) task the in-depth investigative reporting “Spotlight” team (Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James) to take a closer look at a small court case involving a tenacious lawyer (Stanley Tucci) suing the local Catholic Archdiocese on behalf of clients who were abused by priests. As the reporters track down sources and gather archival background information, they discover a pattern of priests pulled from parishes under suspicious circumstances and quietly reassigned. It’s a clue that something’s rotten, and as a number of victims agree to interviews, it’s clear they’re about to uncover a devastating conspiracy of abuse and cover-ups, staggering in scope, heartbreaking in depth.
Every step of the way, these men and women make sure to get every detail right, to ensure the story is airtight. They’re working in secret, trying to avoid raising the suspicions of local Catholic officials who form an integral part of Boston’s civic and philanthropic society. Some lawyers for the church (Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan) are suspicious, refusing even to corroborate basic details. As the undeniable facts of the case start to add up, the journalists are even more driven to follow facts, beyond assumptions or pre-existing worldviews, into the simple, pure, disturbing truth. McCarthy simply sits back and lets the actors go to work in a movie of conversations – cautious interviews, heated arguments, tense debates, tricky negotiations – as the reporters struggle to get a handle on the story’s reach and implications, as well as deciding how best to break the news to the people. It’s unshowy. The blocking is simple, the editing briskly functional, the photography bright and clean. The filmmaking is so uninsistent, Howard Shore’s score, which would seem sparse in any other film, sounds overbearing. The focus is only on process.
The performers are subtle, natural, inhabiting real people whose day jobs are a combination of craft and calling. Keaton sinks into a tired newsman’s humble fortitude, McAdams carries quiet confidence, Ruffalo leans into inquisitive doggedness, and d’Arcy James wears sturdy moral force. There are no heroes, just normal people patiently doing what they must to root out hidden facts. Here’s a movie about nothing more than the value of a job well done. The job in this case just happens to be one that uncovered one of the most significant news stories of this century. A telling moment comes when September 11, 2001 rolls around, sending the newsroom scrambling in the wake of that day’s tragedy. It pushes the Spotlight team’s work on the backburner, and yet McCarthy treats this huge moment of recent history as a background detail. It’s a moment of world-changing impact, sensitively and appropriately somber in its portrayal, but the decades of spiritual and sexual abuse uncovered by their investigation is just as monumental.
Aside from one poignant montage set to “Silent Night,” featuring what has to be cinema’s most moving and upsetting Excel spreadsheet-making scene, the movie doesn’t push buttons. It speaks as clearly and directly as its characters, knowing the details will speak for themselves. It knows the actors are dialed-in to both the import of their characters’ jobs and the processes of doing them. It has faith in the inherent compelling nature of carefully piecing together a news story, trying to be fair to subjects, and do right by the people of the world by telling the truth. Spotlight may not be quite as richly rewarding a cinematic experience as other great newspaper movies like All the President’s Men and Zodiac, but it belongs on the same Journalism 101 syllabus. Scene by scene, line by line, McCarthy finds a quietly gripping approach, building to a low-key finale both triumphant and daunting. The article has gone to print. But the work continues.