5 / 5
It’s 2001, George W. Bush has just entered the White House, AOL is advertising on billboards and a massive, decades-long cover up of child molestation by Catholic Priests is about to be exposed by an elite team of journalists. That’s the setting of Spotlight, which tells the true-life story of the Boston Globe division that spent a year interviewing victims and pouring through church and court records to unravel one of the most insidious conspiracies in modern memory.
It’s a great story, and just like the scandal needed the Globe’s Spotlight team to tell it right, Spotlight, the movie, is the perfect fit to tell the tale on the big screen.
Full disclosure: I’m a journalist, and I have no illusions about how much these types of films preach to my choir. But even as I attempt to set that bias aside, I maintain that Spotlight is a great piece of drama and not just first amendment porn. That’s because director Tom McMarthy is working with a perfect cast, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo Liev Schriber, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci and John Slattery.
Together they create an incredibly human story about individuals working together to move a mountain. This is Boston, and The Catholic Church (or simply, THE Church), is an institution that is all but immortal, but the Spotlight team made it bleed.
As a piece of drama, Spotlight shouldn’t work. There’s no back-alley meet ups with anonymous sources, no bricks through windows. Even fellow based-on-a-true-story Zodiak had the unspoken possibility that its journalist character could be murdered by the titular killer.
Instead we have long segments in which the characters furrow their brows and run their fingers down the pages of a directory, or type names into a database. It’s not sexy stuff, but Spotlight makes the machinery of a newsroom as compelling as a car chase.
When the pieces start coming together, and the Globe team realizes its not just a handful but dozens of priests with hundreds of victims between them, the script hums with electricity. The audience is treated to a sample of firsthand accounts from survivors, and the knowledge that it’s the tip of a very dark iceberg is handled with deft, unsettling precision by McCarthy.
The film would have been forgiven for playing into the criminal acts of the Catholic Priests. It’s easy to imagine an alt-universe version of Spotlight that plays like an episode of CSI, showing us a string of horrendous crimes as our heroes get closer to the truth. McCarthy resists that temptation, and the film is better for it. It’s not a story about depravity, it’s a call to action.