In the age of social media, in which judgments are quickly rendered and immediately disseminated, old-school investigative journalism has lost some of its cachet. “Spotlight,” Tom McCarthy’s gripping examination of the Boston Globe’s investigation into decades of child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, celebrates classic journalism as a source of truth and catharsis, a noble endeavor that has the potential to heal victims of injustice and to unveil the deceptive wrongdoings of powerful institutions. By emphasizing the arduous, long-term work of journalists who risk personal friendships and comfort for the sake of uncovering the truth, “Spotlight” implicitly laments society’s current thirst for immediate gratification in the midst of a 24/7 news cycle. The reporters who went on to win the Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of the Catholic Church did not send out daily tweets with updates on the status of their story. Rather, they waited months and months until all of the facts were corroborated, until a strategy of response to the inevitable complaints of the Catholic Church was created, before they published their findings.
While a fondness for investigative journalism provides “Spotlight” with its narrative thrust, it also serves as a marker that distinguishes Tom McCarthy’s movie from most of its mainstream contemporaries. The storytelling structure of “Spotlight” possesses a patience and pace that mirrors that of the journalistic efforts of the Boston Globe team. McCarthy writes and directs this story with a slow-building crescendo of tension. He is telling a story of momentous importance, and yet he understands that the only proper way to communicate this saga is to let the plot unfold naturally and without manipulation. Whereas many movies offer just fleeting glimpses into the conversations and deliberations of real life, “Spotlight” provides full access to the backroom discussions of the reporters. On paper, such an unfiltered approach may sound a bit dry. Thanks to McCarthy’s acumen as a writer and director, though, every scene sparkles with invigorating energy.
The story of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church has long been in the headlines, but “Spotlight” tackles the issue with a laser-sharp focus that provokes fresh insight. The film is helped in this regard by a splendid ensemble of actors, all of whom fit into their roles with precision. Michael Keaton persuasively inhabits the inner dilemma of a journalist who knows that his efforts to speak truth to power will hinder some of his personal relationships. Rachel McAdams exudes a mix of toughness and compassion as she interviews victims of abuse in an effort to bring their stories to the forefront of national consciousness. Mark Ruffalo demonstrates arrogance and resilience as a reporter who refuses to take no for an answer. Brian d’Arcy James expresses calm and fortitude. John Slattery and Liev Schreiber engage in some hostile back-and-forth as editors whose clashing leadership styles disguise their shared desire to fight for the truth. It is a remarkable cast, the type of assemblage that seems designed for a “Best Ensemble” win at the Screen Actors Guild Awards.
“Spotlight” is a movie of moral fervor and an homage, both journalistically and cinematically, to a form of storytelling that some fear is dwindling. This is one of the best movies of the year.