By Jacob Wampfler
Spotlight is quite a rare film. In fact, it hardly feels like a film at all. It’s not flashy, it’s certainly not groundbreaking from any technical standpoint. But this film is wholly unique in the way that it captures an engrossing topic through the lense of old-school journalism. This brand of print journalism, much like the film that encapsulates it, is a dying art. This makes Spotlight essential viewing on multiple levels and gives movie-goers yet another great film in 2015.
Spotlight documents the story of The Boston Globe team of the same name that worked throughout most of 2001 to early 2002 to investigate and report on the sexual abuse of children by Boston priests. More importantly, however, their investigation sought to report on the larger issue of top-down cover-up by the Boston Archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, who had intimate knowledge of the abuse happening within the church.
Given this serious and exceedingly dour topic, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy manages to deliver a spectacular film on every level. With intricate detail, he weaves together the very crucial pieces needed to make a film of this caliber work. As such, in what unfolds like a stage play, the acting in this film is perhaps the pinnacle of what Spotlight has to offer. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy James (all members of the Spotlight team) have fantastic chemistry and also stand out on their own when given the opportunity. Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, along with a few familiar character actors round out what is truly an ensemble cast of fascinating design. If there is one stand-out performance in this film, though, Michael Keaton as the “player/coach” of the Spotlight team is a revelation. As a native Bostonian, totally steeped in the culture and life of the city he calls home, Keaton’s performance as Robby Robinson conveys the true message of this film with both gravitas and humility.
From a pure storytelling perspective, Spotlight excels in every way imaginable. In a scene where the Spotlight team interviews a victim of sexual abuse by a priest, the viewer is led to understand that each member of the team has a close connection to the city of Boston and the Catholic church within it. This simple but effective plot device bolsters the film throughout its entire run-time. Boston is painted as a big city that acts much more like a small town. As such, no one is let off the hook in this story. Church officials, defense attorneys, prosecutors, and even members of the Spotlight team are all saddled with the unspeakable burden of abuse within the church. Complicity is a moving target in Spotlight. The heroes of this film aren’t necessarily exalted as much as they are portrayed as flawed human beings seeking to bring justice to bear.
Brought together with a piano-driven score by Howard Shore (I love nearly all of his work), Spotlight is a film about finding the truth. It’s also a film about serious journalism. The Spotlight team is given license to spend up to a year investigating a story before it goes to print. They report on systemic issues rather than isolated problems. At one point in the film, two characters have a heated exchange about this very topic, both with the victims of sexual abuse in mind. In an age of instantaneous communication and information, one would be hard-pressed to find a modern-day journalistic parallel for the team after which this film is named.
Spotlight masterfully conveys the story of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church in Boston, but it does so with the approach of an anti-film. The viewer is given a pavement pounding, door knocking, interview laden brand of journalism that has rarely been seen in film before. Spotlight is an important, even crucial, film of 2015. With a striking ensemble cast, amazing portrayal of honest journalism, and introspective central message, Spotlight is an upper-echelon film, well-deserving of recognition this awards season.