Director: Tom McCarthy
Runtime: 128 minutes
A meticulous dramatization of real events, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight makes a compelling case in favor of journalism done right. Though the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals have been in the global limelight for nearly two decades, this trip back to the explosive 2002 Boston Globe story remains queasily relevant. Without giving into either lurid spectacle or a traditional white knight narrative, McCarthy's new film exhibits the very journalistic qualities that it celebrates. In Spotlight, American cinema has produced a work of cinematic journalism that deserves to sit on the same lofty shelf as All the President's Men.
Like President's Men or Zodiac, what Spotlight does so well is fully throw itself into the tedium of the story's details without becoming tedious itself. Montages can be a cheap shortcut to cut through large amounts of time or activity, but McCarthy and editor Tom McArdle incorporate them without ever making a false move. Spotlight runs just over two hours, and every scene is carefully orchestrated to build to the next. This can make the initial set up seem a bit dry (seeing as we know that yes, the Globe's Spotlight team will eventually take on the case). But the eventual payoff is, like a great work of news writing, compelling because it keeps a level head, and lets the facts speak for themselves.
That last bit is especially important when we consider the horrific crimes at the center of the story. The rather academic tone gives enough emotional heft to the story without amping up the material to make it "juicier." The Spotlight team (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian D'Arcy James), as well as the audience, hear the disturbing details, but McCarthy and Josh Singer's script leaves enough to the imagination to avoid exploiting the situation. There are plenty of famous faces in Spotlight, but none of them are conveyed as being of equal importance to the greater impact of the story.
But even though the film doesn't stand out as a performance showcase, McCarthy's actors bring respectable gravitas to the material. As a unit, the Spotlight team is basically different shades of a single character, and that ends up working in the film's favor. These men and women have outside lives, but those outside lives only intrude upon the central narrative when absolutely necessary. Every look we get inside the lives of these reporters adds fuel to the physical and emotional trajectory of the story.
Beyond the performances, most of the below-the-line contributions do little to steal focus as well, which is for the best. Masanobu Takayanagi's camera frequently moves, but in a way that further draws one into the immensity of the investigation. In one of the simplest, and most expressive shots, the camera merely drifts backwards as the Spotlight team listens to a source over a speakerphone. As we learn what the characters learn, the frame widens, visually complementing the sudden expansion of the abuse scandal's scope. Spotlight may rely heavily on talking, but it still finds room for subtle (even invisible) moments of thoughtful visual composition.
Other tech contributions, including Howard Shore's simple score, are appropriately invisible. Beyond the screenplay and direction, McArdle's deft cutting deserves the most praise for stitching together so much information all while allowing it to develop so smoothly. As it is in journalism, so it is in filmmaking: having a sharp eye in the editor's chair is crucial into shaping a well-intentioned vision into a legitimate work of impactful art.