Movie Review: Spotlight (2015)
For a drama about uncovering the Catholic church child molestation scandal, “Spotlight” is surprisingly undramatic. What’s the most dramatic moment? Racing to a copy machine before a government office closes? A lawyer circling a list of names? Its tone throughout is matter-of-fact. You might even call it objective.
Director Tom McCarthy keeps making good movies (“Station Agent,” “Win Win”), but as an actor his most famous role is probably Scott Templeton, the Baltimore Sun reporter who fabricated details and quotes and, well, people, in the fifth season of “The Wire.” Now he—Scotty Templeton!—has given us the best movie about investigative journalism since “The Insider.”
The more interesting point of comparison, though, may be with “All the President’s Men.” Both movies feature Ben Bradlee: Sr. (Jason Robards) in the first, Jr. (John Slattery, doomed to play bon vivants) here. Both movies focus on uncovering the corruption of powerful institutions (the White House, the Catholic Church) that loom large over their respective cities (D.C., Boston). The difference is in the numbers. For Woodward and Bernstein, the investigative thrust is toward the one: What did the president know and when did he know it? In “Spotlight,” the investigative thrust is toward the many. The question isn’t “How high does it go?” but “How widespread is it?” At first we have one child-abusing priest, then three; then 13; then 87. Each time, the newer number is met with incredulity. It seems an impossibly cynical suggestion. Then it’s eclipsed.
It takes a village
There aren’t many movie characters that intrigued me more this past year than Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron. He arrives at The Boston Globe from Florida with the reputation as a hatchet man. Is he? We wonder, along with Bradlee, and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the four-person Spotlight investigative team. Will they lose headcount? Is Spotlight being cut altogether? There’s an initial tentativeness around Baron that feels real, and he doesn’t help matters by being a slightly odd duck. He’s soft-spoken, seemingly distracted but actually focused. His oddities, his stranger-in-a-strange-land persona, jumpstarts the investigation, since he sees Boston with fresh eyes. If Schreiber had had more screentime, I think he would’ve been nominated for an Oscar.
Each member of the Spotlight team has a particular focus. The hyperactive Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) sniffs around the offices of attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represents more than 50 plaintiffs in separate lawsuits against the Catholic Church, and who is not impressed with the Globe’s coverage thus far. Initially he’s not helpful. But he appreciates Rezendes’ doggedness, and eventually his work, and he keeps pointing the way. He’s this movie’s Deep Throat, except they meet on park benches in the afternoon rather than parking garages at 3 a.m.
Meanwhile, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) goes door-to-door to find victims and victimizers, while Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) realizes halfway through the investigation that a kind of halfway house for abusive priests is a block away from where he’s raising his kids; that’s when it gets personal for him. (Sidenote: Critics keep talking up how much the actors actually look like journalists, and it’s particularly true for James with his soup-strained moustache; but it’s not true at all for McAdams. Sorry. Bless your heart, Rachel, you give it a go, but you’re still way too pretty for print journalism.)
Robby is the guy who deals with the mucky-mucks and poo-bahs. At one point, he accuses a rich, seemingly slick PI-plaintiff attorney, Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup), of making money off abuse, and Macleish tosses it back in his face. He alerted the paper years ago, he says; and the paper did nothing. Do we ever get closure on this? Who’s at fault? Robby? Bradlee?
The larger message is that no one is clean. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” Garabedian says later, “it takes a village to abuse one.”
Tell me the half of it
“Spotlight” is a treasure trove of great dialogue. Early on, Baron is telling Robby how he wants to find a way to make the paper essential to its readers:
Robby: I like to think it already is.
Baron [pause, assessment]: Fair enough.
Or this moment when Pfeiffer is drawing out an abuse victim in the shadow of a nearby church:
Pfeiffer: Joe, did you ever try to tell anyone?
Joe: Like who—a priest?
Even this, as Rezendes sits with a beleaguered Garabedian, who really is begging to tell his story, during a lunch break from the local courthouse:
Garabedian: You don’t know the half of it.
Rezendes: Tell me the half of it, Mitch.
I love that 9/11, of all days, is a kind of annoyance in this story; it interrupts the story, as it interrupted all of our stories. I like the looming churches, and all they signify, and the AOL billboard outside the Globe offices, and all it signifies. It’s a reminder of the other battle journalists are fighting—against obsolescence. “Spotlight” shows us the necessity of good investigative journalism even as we are creating the circumstances—by what we buy, what we click on—that will soon restrict its efficacy. The last words we hear are Robby’s, picking up a phone. “This is Spotlight,” he says. The story is out, the phones are ringing, the work continues. It should be triumphant; and it is. But it also feels like the end of something.