Thesis student Bradley Laufman reviews Spotlight (Tom McCarthy 2015)

It’s that time of year. The performances are earnest, the soundtracks are swelling, and stories are heartbreaking. And, if you’re a good little cinephile, a seasoned, well-loved performer will bless your viewing experience with a scene-chewing performance that you’ll be talking about for weeks to come. That’s right: we’ve officially started awards season. Producers are hungry for Oscar gold and the audiences are hungry for sumptuous historical dramas, sweeping romances, and real-life dramas. And, with the recent release of films like Suffragete, Brooklyn, and now Spotlight, we won’t be left with empty stomachs anytime soon. 

Spotlight tells the true story of a ragtag group of investigative reporters at the Boston Globe who uncover a sex scandal that history has shown rocked the Catholic Church to its core. Initially, the reporters look at a small group of loosely connected molestation cases between Catholic priests and their alter boys, but the story soon grows exponentially, with a potential conspiracy that goes all the way to the Vatican. While we all know how the story will play out, the proceedings are given a dramatic heft that is bolstered by a stellar cast, near-perfect screenplay, and tense editing throughout.

Upon first glance, Spotlight would appear to be as stereotypical as awards movies come. There’s the ragtag underdogs taking on an immensely powerful institution, the shadowy threat of a conspiracy that has even the most altruistic believers in its grip, and the string of heartbreaking supporting performances from the victims thirsty for revenge. However, Spotlight succeeds where so many others fail due to its refusal to fall into the trap of the cookie-cutter prestige picture. Gone are the stirring speeches about injustice and morality; gone are the scene-chewing performances that appear almost too on-the-nose in their writing and delivery; gone is the soaring orchestral soundtrack that hammers home every emotional crescendo in the story. In their place, we have a strict adherence to realism and pragmatism that complicates the narrative in ways that will stick with the audience far more than any performance or line of dialogue.

The journalists at the heart of the film are each struggling with the revelations in their own ways. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) shows understandable frustration and outrage towards his bosses who refuse to publish any findings until all evidence has been corroborated. “Why are we hesitating?” he screams at Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton in a perfectly nuanced performance) when they decide to delay the publication of their findings, “it's time, Robby! They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We got to nail these scumbags, we got to show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.” Similarly, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) exhibits a quietly anguished sympathy when interviewing the under-privileged victims whose lives have been ruined by the very people they believed could save them from a life of poverty and pain. One such victim, Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), sums up the outrage at the heart of the film when asked why he didn’t come forward at the first instance of abuse: “When you're a poor kid from a poor family and when a priest pays attention to you, it's a big deal. How do you say 'no' to God?”

Outrage and anger permeates every scene of Spotlight, but the publication of the journalists’ findings feels like a far cry from the sense of justification and vindication craved not just by the victims, but for the audience as well. A sense of “too little, too late” makes the outrage all the more painful as the journalists are repeatedly confronted with the question of “why now” from the victims when all of the evidence they had could have been used years beforehand. In the eyes of the victims and the audience, the journalists are just as guilty for failing to act when the time was right as the Vatican officials who brushed aside the allegations for fear of a public relations nightmare.

Director and co-writer Todd McCarthy remains mostly hands-off throughout the proceedings and lets the story and performances speak for themselves. The end result of this approach pays off in spades with strong performances across the board and a script that handles the turgid real-life material with respect and restraint which keeps the film from feeling like an exploitative work of Oscar-bait. The crimes at the heart of the story are handled with a sensitivity and care that befits their nature and there is never a moment that rings anything but heartbreakingly true. In lesser hands, this story would feel crass, simplistic, and banal; or, in other words, Oscar-bait. Thankfully, McCarthy and his crew restrain themselves from every impulse.

In Spotlight, you won’t find a rousing speech glorifying the values of investigative journalism. You won’t hear a rousing orchestral soundtrack that emphasizes the vulnerability and outrage of the victims. You won’t get lines that wrap up every theme of the story in a clean bow for easy analysis. Instead, you will find a deeply complicated and restrained story that befits the material; understated performances that feel all too human in their quiet determination to do the right thing regardless of their past mistakes; and a script that complicates where lesser films would simplify. In other words, you will find in Spotlight a film as complicated and complex as the real life issues it seeks to confront.