The best procedural film on investigative journalism is All the President’s Men. All procedural films made after that one garner comparisons to it as All the President’s Men is the standard bearer for the genre. It is a risky thing to trust your ability as a filmmaker to put a movie out there that you expect moviegoers to enjoy which basically follows newspaper writers around watching them interview people and taking notes for two hours. If the subject matter is compelling enough for the audience then they will be more likely to enjoy the finer points of the film as they pertain to the procedural aspects. Tom McCarthy’s new film Spotlight not only keeps the audience’s attention, but is worthy of being compared to All the President’s Men as one of the best procedural films of all time.
Based on a true story, Spotlight begins in early July of 2001 at the Boston Globe when they brought on a new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schriber); Baron was a journeyman editor brought to the Boston Globe from his second stint at the Miami Herald. Schreiber portrays Baron as an earnest yet quietly driven man who tasks the Spotlight section of the paper to start investigating the alleged Catholic priests child molestation scandal and the church’s alleged coverup of the events. In order to eventually gain some tread with the likely findings of his reporters, Baron asks the Globe’s publisher Richard Gilman (Michael Countryman) if the paper may challenge a court ruling that ordered previous investigations to this matter sealed. Gilman gives his blessing and that is only the beginning of where we realize how bold of an investigation this will be given the city and the power the Catholic church holds over it.
The Spotlight team at the Globe consists of four members: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo); Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and the team leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), all of whom are portrayed brilliantly by the actors who make us believe they are genuine investigative reporters. Robby (as played by Keaton) is a mellow guy who grew up in the Boston area and was educated in the Catholic school system that he has been tasked with investigating. He explains to his team what it is they need to do, and they set out to do it. Tom McCarthy directs the scenes between Robby and his (three) reporters with careful attention to the subtle construct of their hierarchy; Keaton holds the staff’s attention and commands respect without histrionics or waving an iron fist. McCarthy’s handling of these scenes is the most important aspect of this film, because this construct is the through line for the rest of the movie; it makes the reporters actions throughout the film all the more believable and defines them as important cogs in the investigation and not just ancillary characters added for symmetrical depth.
When the writers all begin their respective investigating on the assignment they do so with professionalism and a steadfast sense of duty like they would any story. McCarthy’s direction enriches Spotlight beyond (just) its procedural foundation. What the reporters find out is stuff we as viewers already know given that this is a story most of us have read/heard about before seeing the film. But what McCarthy does to implicate the viewers as a part of the scandal is nothing short of masterful and should net him a Best Director nomination – more on that in a moment.
It should be noted that given its subject matter, Spotlight is in no way an anti-religion film nor is it an anti-Catholic movie. If someone feels this way after viewing the film, I think they have missed the point entirely. Things of this nature are often (conveniently) given the out of sight out of mind brush off. This type of scandal is not the ordinary celebrity gossip type of thing that serves as a distraction to Americans. Sure it has the allure of a tabloid scandal, but it’s dealing with adults molesting children – bottom line! The only thing that gives it a gossipy fervor is that it is connected to the Catholic Church. McCarthy goes to great pains with his direction to point this out. He understands that the priests who committed these acts did so by using their standing as priests to molest children. As stated, McCarthy wants to make this clear; but what I believe to be the underlying theme of the film is that most Americans are guilty of standing blithely by while horrible things go on. We are more apt to hope that someone else (whose job it is) will get rid of this bad thing and pick up the pieces left behind. McCarthy is not blaming anyone for this necessarily, I believe he is imploring us to be more aware of our surroundings and to not be afraifd to take a stand where one is needed….
There is a scene that I feel serves as an allegorical moment to this theme:
During the investigation one day Robby and Mike (Keaton & Ruffalo) are walking down many hallways and stairs in the Boston Globe office building which eventually leads them to a dingy room in the basement where Matt (Brian d’Arcy James) is looking through many books for researching purposes. When the two men enter the room one of them exclaims, “What is that smell?!” Matt answers, “There’s a dead rat in the corner of the room.”
This is a small moment, yes, but it says a mouthful. These three men (and apparently any other people who have gone in to the room while the rat was decaying) have chosen to ignore the problem of the dead rat and put up with the smell for the short while they are in this room. Once they leave, they;ll no longer have to deal with the smell (or the decaying rodent’s body).
McCarthy is not saying these are bad men for ignoring the rat and perhaps leaving it to the janitor to clean up; he is simply giving a common example of man’s propensity to ignore with what they do not have to deal. In doing so, McCarthy is NOT comparing dead rats to priests molesting children. He is allowing for the audience to make the connection in a relatable way as to how someone can ignore something that is clearly a big problem and is happening in close proximity to where you work and live?
McCarthy performs a masterstroke of direction to answer this question, and also in establishing the church’s intoxicating power and influence in the city of Boston. In mostly every scene that takes place amidst the city, we see (different) beautiful church steeples towering over the background, which serves as a stark reminder of the Catholic church and its heavy influence throughout the community. He is not absolving anyone, mind you, but rather providing an artful reason as to how this scandal could’ve been ignored. This is done at several different locations. I feel not only is McCarthy trying to say it was difficult for people who knew about this scandal to say anything, but also the victims themselves.
One other element of Spotlight that also serves to establish an elephant in the room motif is the horrible events of 9/11. The beginning of the film shows subtitles indicating it is July of 2001. I can’t speak for anyone else, but the first thing I thought when I saw that is, how will the film handle 9/11? I know I already sound the like I am the president of the Tom McCarthy Fan Club (you should all see his film Win Win btw), but he handles these events with a grace and ease allowing for the events (as they pertain to the Spotlight staff) to act as a transition back to the investigation of the Catholic Church. McCarthy trusts the viewers’ collective memories of that day and its fallout to provide its own subnarrative to this section of the film. Needless to say 9/11 became the top reporting priority at The Boston Globe and therefore brought the current Spotlight investigation of the Church scandal to a halt. The Spotlight team stopped what they were doing to cover their portion of 9/11 as diligently as any other story. There is a scene where Mike has been sent to Florida to investigate the flight school where some of the 9/11 terrorists took flying lessons. What McCarthy does here to link the plot back to the Catholic Church investigation is so brilliant, yet so subtle, that if you blink you may miss it.
So we have a great (true) story, wonderful ensemble cast and all in all an entertaining film. What I think makes Spotlight special (once again) is the careful direction by Thomas McCarthy. He does a great job in establishing the hierarchy of the Boston Globe and also the Spotlight department. The performances are all great and the parts so well written that when we see one of the Globe writers maybe overstep their bounds (on the hierarchy), we understand how it makes sense or it is not inappropriate. I really enjoyed how we get to see all of the four main characters at one point or another treat this investigation with personal emotion. Yes, it is their job to do their unbiased investigating; so it is with great joy as a viewer watching them step out of their occupation for a moment to respectively take on the full magnitude of what it is they are actually trying to report. Spotlight reminds us to once in awhile allow for emotion to be our guide towards an earnest cause. This is the year’s best film….!!