In 2001, Spotlight, the small investigative branch of the Boston Globe took on a new case exploring several incidents of reported child molestations by Catholic priests in the Boston area. The Globe had already reported on these types of stories for decades, but they’d never amounted to much more than scattered incidents–until the four reporters of Spotlight discover that the story is a whole lot bigger than anybody realized. And it was right under their noses all this time.
The film, however, isn’t really about their discoveries, and that is what separates Spotlight from other “mystery” or “scandal uncovering” dramas. This is a film about the Spotlight team and its significance to the larger journalistic/media community and indirectly us–the audience.
Without giving too much away, there is a pivotal moment during the film when the 9/11 terrorist attacks occur. By this point, the team is halfway through their investigation and in full momentum, but 9/11 grinds the entire operation (indeed, the entire U.S.) to a halt. The world came to a watershed moment that day and, afterwards, time would find itself marked either pre-9/11 or post-9/11. The post-9/11 world consists of many things, and one of those things is the existential crisis that journalism faced. This crisis was already emerging before the attacks occurred, brought on by the advent of the digital and influenced by the new easily distracted MTV generation. Glimpses of the shift in journalism can be seen in the film through the Globe’s new editor-in-chief Marty Baron, who recognizes that he needs to make some serious changes to the newspaper, changes which include staff cuts. Spotlight, with its slow meticulous methods, is one of the first departments to fall under his critical gaze. His response, however, is to give them an assignment–the Catholic priest scandal–to see what they might accomplish with it.
This brings us back to 9/11, during which every reporter had dropped what they were doing to focus on the tragedy gripping the nation. The media coverage during 9/11 arguably kicked off the “breaking news” era in journalism. Since then, we repeatedly see news organizations position their reporting as a string of dramatic breaking news events, driven by a momentum for better metrics. But for Spotlight, they had an uncomfortable story that could alienate and upset their largely Catholic readership. Theirs was news that shocks, but not necessarily news that sells. Throughout the film, however, each member of Spotlight at some point reiterates that their goal and motivation for what they do is to serve the public, no matter the cost. Their work stands in direct contrast to the changing climate of journalism, highlighting several aspects of journalism that can be hard to find today:
- Good local reporting that supports a particular community, and reporters who, while pursuing objectivity, see themselves as part of that community and integral to its well-being.
- Journalism that seeks to preserve and uphold human rights and the safety of communities, especially in the areas in which law enforcement, legal firms, and church leadership cannot or will not fulfill their own similar responsibilities to the community.
- Long-form journalism, in which reporters take their time in gathering and telling a full story, in context, and not just one part of that story in order to meet a deadline.
- Journalism that seeks to tell people’s stories respectfully, providing a place for those who need a voice to be heard but not exploited.
One of the things that I really appreciated about this film was director Tom McCarthy’s depictions of the team that accomplished this incredible journalistic work. While we don’t learn much about their personal lives–this story isn’t about them as individuals–we do see snatches of each individual’s private life, enough to learn that these are four, very unassuming individuals from regular walks-of-life, but with the incredible ability to develop rapport and trust with their sources. We see this same rapport as they interact with their families. For instance Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) worries about his kids’ safety, fretting about a neighborhood potential danger, while Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) drinks tea and attends mass with her grandmother, a woman committed to the Catholic church that Sacha is investigating. Though they all work late hours that sometimes extend into the weekends, these are also individuals who understand that their responsibility to the community begins at home with their families.
In terms of a critique, perhaps the film could have been a bit shorter, but I am not sure what I would have cut out, and indeed, shortening it undermines the argument for long-form storytelling. I would also liked to have seen a bit more from Liev Schriber’s character, Marty Baron. It was delightful to see him in a less action-driven role like this, but the way his role is positioned leaves one expecting some great reveal regarding Marty Baron–or at least greater insight into Baron’s interest in this particular story. Instead Baron remains an elusive figure in the shadows. There are no complaints about any of the performances, however. I am usually indifferent to Rachel McAdams, but she was incredible as Sacha Pfeiffer. Michael Keaton, while no Birdman this time around, gave a strong performance, and Mark Ruffalo just keeps out doing himself every year. HIs performance was perhaps my favorite of them all.
So far this year has been largely unexceptional in regards to movie releases, but Oscar season is now upon us, and Spotlight is a clear indication of this. It is my favorite film of the year, thus far, but I am excited to see what else is in store. Star Wars, of course, I will be seeing tonight, and thankfully has had rave reviews so far. Then Monday, I’ll be seeing Paolo Sorrentino’s new film Youth, starring Michael Caine and Rachel Weisz. So for the next few weeks, expect to see a solid string of film reviews. I’ll try to keep churning them out as I see more Oscar contenders. Please let me know if there’s a particular film you want me to see and review.