Spotlight (2015)

Hollywood likes newspapers, and not only because their writers pen the official artistic judgments of its work. The news business is one of those subjects that’s just well suited to cinema—who can resist a good tale of intrepid reporters speaking truth to power and exposing entrenched corruption? It may not show up in the blockbuster ranks as often as war heroism, superhero romp, or comic romance between beautiful people, but that story is just as essential a part of Hollywood’s repertoire. So given that the Boston Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigative unit has, as one character notes, been around since 1970—a few years before Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman took down Richard Nixon in All The President’s Men, setting the tone for journalism cinema ever since—it’s almost surprising that (as far as I know) there wasn’t a movie made about it sooner. A small team of hard-driving reporters in a city that Hollywood loves,[i] who are not just permitted, but specifically assigned to spend months or even years on deep-dive investigations? That’s almost too perfect a setup for newsroom drama, one that would seem like a stretch if you couldn’t state up front that it’s based on real events. Add that in 2002 (at a crucial moment in the history of newspapers, no less), that team dropped some quintessential bombshell reporting about a textbook case of high-level wrongdoing—the Boston Archdiocese’s systematic coverup of child sex abuse by Catholic priests—and it was only a matter of time. That this movie would be made was inevitable. That Spotlight would be an all-time great journalism movie was anything but—the result, instead, of smart choices and top-notch work by everyone involved.

It starts (as it tends to) with the director: in this case Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the script with Josh Singer.[ii] McCarthy isn’t a particularly prolific or flashy filmmaker, but he’s been around for nearly two decades now, quietly building up an impressive body of work. Before Spotlight in 2015, he had made just three smaller indie features: The Station Agent (2003), The Visitor (2007), and Win Win (2011). I haven’t been able to see any of them yet, but they’ve all been widely acclaimed for their touching humanism and exceptionally strong performances. Which isn’t surprising, because McCarthy is an actor, too. He entered the industry that way, and has never completely abandoned it as he’s pursued his career behind the camera; once you recognize him, you catch him appearing in all sorts of supporting roles since the early 2000s, ranging from big releases (Meet the Parents; Flags of Our Fathers) to artsy indies (Good Night, and Good Luck; Jack Goes Boating). Funnily enough, his most prominent role so far has been in the final season of The Wire—as an ingratiating, increasingly unscrupulous reporter at the Baltimore Sun.

McCarthy the visual stylist is all but invisible in Spotlight, but that’s not a deficiency; it’s a conscious choice, and a smart one. For one thing, an unobtrusive docudrama style is right for as story that closely based on the facts of recent history, and driven mostly by the everyday sight of people talking to one another. But the style is also the right aesthetic fit for the setting. As New York Times critic A.O. Scott writes, the movie “captures the finer grain of newsroom life in the early years of this century almost perfectly… As the story unfolds, there are scenes of pale-skinned guys in pleated khakis and button-down oxfords gathering under fluorescent lights and ugly drop ceilings, spasms of frantic phone-calling and stretches of fidgety downtime. Not even the presence of Mad Men bad-boy John Slattery can impart much glamour to these drab surroundings. Visually, the movie is about as compelling as a day-old coffee stain. As I said: almost perfect.”[iii] This is not a film in which it makes sense to indulge your more radical stylistic impulses, and McCarthy wisely does not.

Still, that’s not to say he and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi are phoning it in; behind the scenes, they make smart choices that define this aesthetic and make it effective. When characters speak to each other, the framing is clear and straightforward, the cuts between them thoroughly inconspicuous. When characters move, the camera moves with them, in simple, intuitive motions that draw very little attention to themselves. McCarthy also makes frequent and skillful use of the so-called ‘oner’ (as in the number one), meaning a single shot in which an entire scene, or a large chunk of one, is allowed to play out. When we think about such shots, the most ostentatious examples typically come to mind, the dazzling long takes of mayhem that war and action movies love. But that’s not the only way to use the technique, and just as impressive, in their own way, are the long takes that are so subtle, they effectively pass below our radar.[iv] That’s what McCarthy does so well here: low-key oners in which the camera glides along with characters as they walk, or, if the characters aren’t moving, simply posts up at a good vantage point and lets them talk. These shots are unobtrusive, but their effect is significant: they allow the actors to convey ultra-fine notes and rhythms of performance that even good editing can obscure; and they contribute to the movie’s sense of realism, showing things from the matter-of-fact perspective of another person who happens to be nearby. All this, in turn, serves to make the McCarthy’s judicious use of the close-up all the more effective; because it happens so infrequently, the simple act of cutting in close, so that an actor’s face dominates the frame, is enough to inject a small jolt of urgency into a scene.

Also worth noting is the way that McCarthy, in wide shots around the city and the Globe offices, employs telephoto lenses, the kind that hold many layers of background in focus and appear to collapse the distance between them. Filmmakers love shooting cities this way, especially when they’re going for a claustrophobic, stress-inducing vibe; having all those people and vehicles and buildings appearing densely layered on top of each other, helps to portray the city as a seething mass of humanity, and life within it as a soul-crushing grind. That’s not the case here, though; the effect is limited to simply building a sense of the city as a single, multi-faceted human entity, and the characters as individuals operating within it.Put another way, the telephoto shots function as part of the movie’s overarching realism, which doesn’t try to suppress the fact that Boston—especially in the summer and fall, when the movie takes place—is, by and large, a pretty nice place. The city we see in Spotlight is about as close to the real thing as you’ll find in a fiction film. It looks basically the same, the accents are good (i.e., neither ubiquitous nor overdone), and for those who know the region, there’s plenty of, for lack of a better term, ‘Boston stuff’ to be appreciated: a reference to the endless road closures of the notorious ‘Big Dig’; “freakin” outnumbering “fuckin” as an intensifying adjective; complaints about the sorry state of the Red Sox, just a few years out from one of the great championship runs in sports history; and a rushed Mike Rezendes instructing a cabbie, “Don’t take 93!” (meaning Interstate 93, an epicenter of the city’s uniquely ludicrous traffic). And this authenticity makes the central drama all the more powerful: even in this unembellished Boston—mostly pleasant, plainly recognizable from real life—we find the same kinds of horrific cruelty and suffering that define the stylized urban hellholes of other movies.

McCarthy handles this heaviest of subject matter brilliantly—in the script with Singer, on set with the actors, and in the cutting room with editor Tom McArdle. In his understated, seemingly effortless way, he manages to capture the weight and scope of the priests’ abuse and the human misery it causes without making the movie miserable to watch. He wisely chooses not to show any of the actual abuse in flashbacks, which, powerful though they would surely be, would probably fail to capture the true horror of what happened, yet also be so disturbing that it would overshadow the rest of the movie. Instead, he doesn’t spend much screen time on the abuse itself at all: just an opening flashback succinctly showing how the Church swept it under the rug for decades, and two harrowing interviews with survivors that are fairly brief and grouped together in the first act. The way McCarthy crafts them, though, these scenes are all we need; the opening flashback provides an important point of reference for the Spotlight team’s later discoveries, and thanks to fantastic performances by Michael Cyril Creighton and Jimmy LeBlanc, the interviews are so wrenching that for the rest of the movie, all it takes is a quick shot of another survivor breaking down for us to know the sort of pain they’re feeling, or a quick glimpse of present-day children in the background for us to see them as potential victims, too. McCarthy makes the trauma of the abuse and its emotional toll powerfully felt without losing sight of how they function in the narrative: as wrongs to be exposed, and hopefully remedied as a result. Fundamentally, this movie is about the reporters, the paper, and the way they uncover those horrors.

That’s a complicated story with a lot of moving parts, and McCarthy and his collaborators handle it just as skillfully, with creativity and precision that, like everything else about this movie’s aesthetic, goes largely unnoticed. Key exposition that introduces characters, identifies places, and explains processes, is worked into the dialogue with impressive seamlessness. The line at the end of a given scene will often contain some factual or thematic setup for the next one, making the complex narrative easier to follow and absorb. And although there are no ostentatious editing flourishes, McCarthy and McArdle do engage in some subtle cross-cutting, alternating between two scenes so that each informs the other.

Most consequential of all is McCarthy’s deft hand in juggling the development, and role within the narrative, of the principal characters. They’re fairly numerous (a quintessential ensemble cast), and the movie is a terrific portrayal of collective effort, giving a detailed sense of how the newsroom works and how the investigation progresses, how the reporters operate individually and work as a team, and how their efforts are guided and influenced by those at each level of the editorial hierarchy. Nor are they the only ones crucial to the story; we see them not just going out and actively collecting information, but processing information and pressure coming in from outside sources, and subtle character choices by McCarthy make that aspect of it more compelling. The survivors’ network leader Phil Saviano provides insights into how the abuse happens and the damage it does, and serves as a voice of conscience exhorting the reporters to follow through on doing the right thing. He’s also one of several ways that the movie dispenses information about the scale of the abuse and the Church’s coverup, along with the victims’ lawyer Mitch Garabedian, the Spotlight team as they talk through their findings, and the ex-priest psychotherapist Richard Sipe, who is heard only as a voice on the phone—the better to represent a broader body of expert analysis that the Church has successfully suppressed over the preceding decades. McCarthy had a compelling historical record to work from, but these choices he makes about character and structure make the narrative exceptionally clear, exciting, and poignant—and still very much in keeping with the movie’s down-to-earth realism.

A central aspect of that realism is the fact that, while the issue they’re investigating is as morally clear-cut as they come, the characters are portrayed with much more nuance. For a movie about the exposure of such horrific crimes, there’s a notable dearth of plainly odious villains. McCarthy head-fakes with a few characters, making them seem like possible antagonists early on before they end up making key contributions to the investigation. The Globe’s new executive editor, Marty Baron, comes in with a reputation for cost-cutting layoffs, and initially seems skeptical of Spotlight’s financial viability, but soon afterwards he all but orders them to take on the clerical abuse story, and quickly earns their respect. The team’s managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr., also makes early gestures towards editorial interference, but soon becomes an unquestioned supporter of their work, while still plainly dreading the idea of publishing what they find. Even the smooth-talking lawyer Eric MacLeish, perpetuating and profiting off an unjust system that leaves victims without meaningful legal recourse, turns out to be more complicated that he first appears, his cynicism at least partially rooted in disillusionment after the paper brushed off his earlier attempts to go public.

The closest we have to true villains in Spotlight are decidedly minor characters, and even they are not cartoonishly evil. Cardinal Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, is revealed to have done some seriously awful things, but he comes across as merely pompous, so long accustomed to being respected, admired, and deferred to that he can no longer conceive of himself being wrong, or not doing right. Pete Conley, a congenial member of the city’s Catholic elite who tries to tamp down the story, is just a well-connected guy with P.R. instincts who has fully bought into the old ‘just a few bad apples, and the Church does more good than harm’ argument. And then there’s Jim Sullivan, old friend of Spotlight leader Robby Robinson and distinguished lawyer, whose services the Church enlisted in shielding priests from prosecution. In a great performance from Jamey Sheridan, who “knows how to show the demon under the human face—and the human under the demon face,”[v] he’s an antagonist for much of the movie, warning Robby off with an air of menace, but he ultimately relents and provides the final confirmation that Spotlight needs to run their story.

McCarthy maintains this nuanced characterization across the board; there are no true villains, but no traditional heroes, either. The Spotlight team inevitably comes close—we spend most of our time with them, and they’re shown to be smart, capable and empathetic as they investigate heinous crimes—but McCarthy takes great care to show that they’re not perfect. They make mistakes, experience friction and conflict, and have to contend with an array of forces, from the personal (raised Catholic, firmly rooted in Boston and its traditions) to the institutional (working for a paper in a deeply Catholic city, with a heavily Catholic subscriber base) that, taken together, form a powerful imperative to look the other way—as the Globe mostly has done for decades. As Ty Burr writes, “Spotlight makes the sharp, sobering point that it took an outsider, Baron, to notice what the locals didn’t, or couldn’t, or maybe even wouldn’t, and that the Globe had more than one chance to open an investigation years earlier than it did. The movie paints this as the regrettable bureaucratic oversight of a hectic workplace. It’s also true that people are flawed and that institutions thrive by not making waves. Until something changes, and they do.”[vi] The unshowy genius of this ensemble (Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Brian d’Arcy James, and John Slattery) lies in the way they so clearly and powerfully capture that dynamic. Remember, while the actual abuse is a crucial and moving aspect of the movie, direct engagement with it is concentrated near the beginning, and it’s an unambiguous atrocity thereafter. The emotional progression of the story comes mainly from the reporters as they overcome those many inhibitions and hang-ups, willing themselves to see and expose what the paper has missed before. The actors make that progression subtly but forcefully felt; their initial resistance feels entirely natural, and their various evolutions easy to understand and relate to.

Moreover, and crucially, the Spotlight reporters aren’t the only fully developed characters. Their journeys form the emotional backbone of the movie, but they’re all, for the most part, variations of essentially the same arc. A subtly large share of the emotional impact comes from other characters whose development is less readily apparent. One is Marty Baron. In one of the great feats of underacting in recent cinema, Liev Schreiber captures not only Baron’s essential, unchanging traits—his thoughtful intelligence and absolute, almost uncanny reticence—but also his growth from a recent transplant to a new city into a quietly confident leader; think of the difference between his painfully awkward attempt at a ‘Hi, I’m your new boss’ speech at the beginning, and the eloquently candid one he gives at the end, praising the Spotlight team for the great work they’ve done.

Even more importantly, there’s the always-fantastic Stanley Tucci as Mitch Garabedian, the eccentric, workaholic attorney waging an endless uphill legal battle on behalf of the victims. Mitch, too, has a defining personality—melancholic, cantankerous, and magnificently humorless (his response to a rhetorical “You’re shitting me!” is to look confused and insist, “What? No, I’m not shitting you!”)—but Tucci also gives us a powerful sense of how he grows: slowly and guardedly opening up to the reporters, clearly agonizing over it at every turn, having to work through legal constraints, his own natural irritability, and a longstanding, hard-earned cynicism about all forms of institutional authority, including the press. Of all the various moments in the climactic montage, when the Spotlight report is finally printed, the sight of Mitch just barely choking back his emotions as he shyly asks, “Can I keep this?” may be the most affecting of all.

That line is emblematic of McCarthy and Singer’s writing, which manages (again, inconspicuously) to strike a very tricky balance: articulate and impassioned, yet mostly unremarkable, made up of sentences that you can easily imagine real people saying in real life. We get the obligatory Rousing Speech, but you get the sense that it’s there at least partly because studio higher-ups demanded it (this is still the movie business, after all). The dialogue in the Speech is fine and Ruffalo delivers it well, but it ultimately doesn’t make much of an impression—on us or, significantly, on the person it’s directed at, Robbie, who stands firm in his decision to hold the story until it’s truly ready. The most memorable lines, for me, are thoroughly straightforward: Ben, dismayed by the news that Spotlight is nearing confirmation on seventy abusive priests, somewhat dazedly remarking, “It’s just surprising, that’s all”; or Mike declaring, “It really pisses me off,” after seeing proof that Cardinal Law knew about the abuse and did nothing to stop it; and Sacha sadly agreeing, “It’s a shitty feeling.” Simple dialogue like this, expertly delivered by the actors, is a key aspect of the movie’s overarching realism, and does a much better job of conveying the characters’ sense of moral horror and betrayal by a Church that, lapsed though they are, they inevitably still feel a strong connection to because of their upbringing and where they live.

Spotlight is a great movie because it engages with this defining reality of the story: that what the Spotlight team uncovers is shocking, but it’s not completely surprising. As Sacha bitterly notes, “It’s like everyone already knows”; their work is not so much about exposing hidden abuses as about finally confronting an open secret. More than anything else, Spotlight feels true to life because it’s an uncommonly realistic depiction of how goddamn difficult it is to challenge entrenched authority and remedy entrenched wrongdoing. Even when the reporters are committed, and the citizens inclined to believe the story, at the end of the day the paper is still one of the city’s institutions of authority, and inevitably finds itself rubbing shoulders with the others. As Scott writes, referring to Baron’s early meeting with Cardinal Law, “the image of two prominent men talking quietly behind closed doors…haunts this somber, thrilling movie and crystallizes its major concern, which is the way power operates in the absence of accountability. When institutions convinced of their own greatness work together, what usually happens is that the truth is buried and the innocent suffer. Breaking that pattern of collaborating is not easy.” I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the Spotlight team makes their most meaningful progress by, not breaking rules exactly, but venturing outside social norms—listening to stories about stigmatized trauma, yes, but also waylaying uncooperative sources on the street or leaving work, confronting old friends with difficult questions, and, on one occasion, offering a rather farcical bribe to a sullen clerk.

They eventually uncover the truth and run their big story, of course, but even that climactic success, while exhilarating, is notably low-key. There’s a triumphant montage of the paper being printed and sent out, but no groups of shocked citizens poring over it, no big crowds protesting, no offenders being handcuffed. Instead, it’s just Matt pointedly dropping the paper on the stoop of the Church ‘treatment center’ near his house; Sacha’s grandmother (an effective stand-in for the city’s legions of loyal Catholics) reading it with quiet dismay; a secretary in an empty Sunday office telling Mike and Robby, “great ahticle, guys”; and, finally, all of them back in their office, overwhelmed with calls coming in from other survivors who are now emboldened to tell their own stories.[vii]

That’s in keeping with the realism that McCarthy has been going for throughout the movie, and it’s also thematically important. The final image shows the reporters not victorious, just getting on with the work, because the work isn’t done—on this issue or any of the ones that really matter. The sense of triumph is real, but ultimately muted, and not just because of the sobering postscript showing the extent of clerical sex abuse throughout the world. The movie refers only tangentially to the dire straits of local newspapers in the internet age, but the issue is clearly very much on McCarthy’s mind, having only gotten worse since 2001. He doesn’t imply that we should return to the pre-internet days of journalism, even if we could—as the movie makes clear, things were hardly ideal then, either. He just lays out the facts, and the concerns that go with them. Here’s a story of great progress in holding authority accountable—but only in Boston, on this one issue, and only because of the investigative expertise and resources of Spotlight.

Who still has Spotlight now, and for how much longer?

© Harrison Swan, 2021

[i] Seriously, I feel like there’s been something of a Boston cinematic renaissance recently—starting roughly with The Departed in 2006. Since then, it seems like Boston has been the go-to classic American city, full of deep emotions, long memories, and heavy accents ripe for the big screen. Or maybe Hollywood has always loved Boston, and before 2006 I was just too young to notice.

[ii] Singer may not be famous like some in the film industry (very few writers are, unless they also direct) but it’s worth noting that he seems to be something of a press-film specialist. He’s also written The Fifth Estate (2013), about Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and The Post (2017), about the publication of the Pentagon Papers. More recently, he’s moved away from journalism, but stayed firmly in the realm of fact-based stories, with First Man (2018), about Neil Armstrong, and a yet-to-be produced biopic of Leonard Bernstein.

[iii] A great review, as all of Scott’s are:

[iv] One of the great masters of the understated oner is, of all people, Steven Spielberg—as shown here by Tony Zhou and Tyler Ramos in one of their fantastic Every Frame A Painting video essays:

[v] Another good review, by David Edelstein:

[vi] The Boston Globe’s own review!

[vii] I never quoted it, but this review by Stephanie Zacharek was also super helpful: