Smith’s Verdict: ****
Reviewed by Tanner Smith
I wrote for a newspaper before. It was The Echo, the campus newspaper for UCA (University of Central Arkansas); I wrote for three semesters, and some of the reviews on this blog made it in the Entertainment section. (Not too shabby.) I wasn’t always writing reviews (or columns) for it, however. A requirement for writing for the paper was reporting on current events, either for News, Campus Life, or Sports. I thought it would be easy at first—just go in, report what I see, and make sure I name my sources and get my facts right. The more I did it, the more difficult it became. I had to get different kinds of information from sources that were either unattainable or hard to get in contact with, and I had to write the story before a certain deadline that would keep crunching down.
There. I have my campus newspaper-reporter story out of the way. Now I’m going to talk about “Spotlight,” a film about investigative journalism at its most challenging. I’m aware of the differences between my experiences in The Echo and what happens in this film (in addition to what happens in big newspaper businesses in real life). I just thought I’d mention it here to state that if I thought it was hard writing an article about a heart-disease lecture or Green Week on Campus (among others) for The Echo, I hadn’t done anything yet.
“Spotlight” is one of the best films about newspaper reporting, if not the absolute best. It focuses on a particular story that our main characters—a team of investigative reporters—are trying to dig up over a long period of time. It begins with the team’s interest in the story and it ends with the story being published, meaning the main storyline of “Spotlight” involves the process of getting the story.
“Spotlight” involves the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). They’re a small group of journalists who write in-depth investigative articles after spending months conducting an abundant amount of research. In 2001, their new story comes after the Globe’s new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), learns of a lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who represented numerous families alleging their children were sexually abused by Catholic priests. Baron wants the Spotlight team to investigate. Rezendes meets with Garabedian, who reluctantly tells him that there’s much more going on here than meets the eye. The Spotlight team interviews victims and lawyers, and it becomes clear that this isn’t just a 4-13 case number. It’s a widespread conspiracy, with at least 90 cases of scandal and cover-up. The team realizes how risky it is to go after such a powerful institution as the Catholic Church, but they go ahead with the story anyway, spending months to get the full scoop and expose the truth.
“Spotlight” is based on actual events—in early 2002, Spotlight published the story and it triggered a storm that caught the attention of both the country and the world. The whole film is seen through the perspective of this team of journalists, and the audience discovers what they uncover, through conducting interviews, following leads, and so on. Much of the film takes place in the newsroom, and so you get a sense that this is their life (we only get glimpses of their home lives, because the film is less about character than about the job). Director Tom McCarthy (director of small indie favorites such as “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, has a great eye for the material and makes the wise decision of approaching it with tact and realism without resorting to melodrama. He gets the journalists’ intrigue within the investigation and uses it with respect.
The characters are secondary to the most important aspect of the film, which is to show the harrowing process of this type of investigative journalism. But it takes great acting from those portraying the journalists to really sell it. Thankfully, the ensemble acting is nothing short of brilliant. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams, d’Arcy James, and Schreiber look and feel exactly right for their roles, right down to their mannerisms (for example, I love how McAdams keeps scribbling notes as she walks away from a property she got kicked out of). Plus, they undersell certain scenes that would be overly emotional; they play it like any regular person absorbing new, disturbing information would. You can tell they’re upset by what they uncover, but they’re taking it in rather than breaking down and throwing things across the room in anger. There’s only one blow-up scene in which Ruffalo gets angry and explodes, but even that’s not overdone. Speaking of Ruffalo, he’s perfect as an intensely aggressive reporter who won’t stop until he gets what he needs—he earned his Oscar nomination. In fact, the whole cast should’ve been nominated; not just Ruffalo and McAdams. (Seriously, Academy—the Indie Spirit Awards have an Ensemble Acting award, and you should too.)
Even though there were too few occasions where I could see myself in these characters, having worked on a smaller paper for a brief period of time, I could recognize close to everything as being true to life. It makes me wonder how I would feel if I was working for this paper and working with this team and getting this particular story. I will tell you this: it would’ve made me proud to fight with giants and do whatever it takes to get the word out and expose the truth. I feel the passion in the Spotlight team and it makes me glad there are more investigative journalists out there fighting to remove the curtains behind which people hide with their dark injustices.
“Spotlight” was one of the best films of 2015—I really wish I knew that when I did my “2015 Review.” I put it in the Honorable Mentions when it should’ve been placed as #2 on my Top-10-of-2015 list. Watching it again and reviewing it now, I recognize my mistake and attempt to take it back with a four-star rating and nothing but praise for this brilliant film. (And hey, it won the Best Picture Oscar, so there’s that too.)