The newspaper picture was once an institution in Hollywood, from early examples like The Front Page and His Girl Friday to the Watergate-era success of All the President’s Men. (Even Citizen Kane begins as a newspaper picture.) But that was before print dailies began their continuing battle for survival in an era where page-clicks — rather than community impact — have become the industry’s accepted measure of success. That reality provides crucial context for Spotlight, director and co-writer Thomas McCarthy’s dramatization of The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-wining 2001 investigation of pedophile priests in that city, along with the Catholic church’s decades-long cover-up of their crimes.
Sexual abuse of children by the most trusted members of a community is a difficult subject that few want to see depicted in a film. McCarthy neutralizes that issue by focusing on The Boston Globe’s elite team of investigative journalists — known as Spotlight — and the methods they used to expose crimes systematically buried by the city’s most hallowed institutions.
A journalism procedural may not sound like the stuff of high drama, but the masterful Spotlight defies expectations. It’s crafted well enough to make you wonder why Hollywood doesn’t produce work of this caliber more often. The film deservedly may prove tough to beat in the upcoming awards season.
While most films “based on true events” rely on nonfiction books and articles to tell a story, no such materials existed relating to Spotlight’s methods. McCarthy and co-screenwriter Josh Singer effectively had to emulate their subjects — conducting original research and interviewing Globe writers and editors — to get the behind-the-scenes story of the investigation. That may be one reason why Spotlight seems to come from a different place than other newspaper films and feels like an important work in its own right.
The film’s greatest success is the way it handles issues of complicity and culpability as regards the terrible crimes perpetrated by almost 100 priests in the Boston area alone. Spotlight refuses to make heroes of investigative journalists in the typical Hollywood style. In fact, the film makes clear that The Boston Globe (which covered church-related abuse stories for decades but failed to see a pattern) and the community at large bear some responsibility for what happened. We are all charged with protecting children in our community, especially when our most sacred institutions fail them.
Making all of this possible is a rock-sold ensemble cast that includes Michael Keaton (as Spotlight boss Walter “Robby” Robinson), John Slattery (Roger Sterling on TV’s Mad Men, as Globe Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr.), Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup. But Spotlight’s star is Mark Ruffalo (as reporter Michael Rezendes), who seems to further sharpen his acting chops with every film he makes.
It’s a testament to Spotlight that it has earned praise for its veracity not only from working journalists at The Boston Globe and elsewhere, but also from the Archdiocese of Boston and Vatican Radio. It’s hard to argue with the truth, especially when it spreads in the form of similar revelations regarding thousands of children in 200 cities across the globe. In its own quiet and unassuming way, Spotlight shows exactly what we all stand to lose when serious journalism goes by the wayside.
Spotlight opens today, Nov. 20, at the Elmwood Palace and Canal Place theaters.