In 2001, the Boston Globe’s four-member “Spotlight Team” of investigative journalists is tasked with the comprehensive coverage of criminal prosecutions involving Roman Catholic Church priests and the sexual abuse of minors. Led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), writers Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Bryan d’Arcy James) begin extensive research into the perpetrators, the victims, and the lawyers assigned to the cases. As they dig deeper, the dedicated group steadily uncovers a web of deception and cover-ups that will expose a wide-reaching conspiracy and shock a nation.
“Spotlight” isn’t just “based on actual events” like the title card suggests. It’s practically a documentary in the way that it depicts the reporting that led to the unearthing of 2001’s shattering Catholic Archdiocese scandal. Even though it begins with a brief going-away party, the main characters quickly shuffle back to their seemingly underground lair, full of notepads and desks and computers, where they yell down the phone and arrange their hectic schedules. Thanks to a loss of readership, monetary cutbacks, and the imposition of the internet, times are tough at the Boston Globe – and thanks to Tom McCarthy’s direction (with cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi), the frantic flurrying is very much a workaday ordeal, devoid of flair or fancy editing.
Unfriendly, unsentimental, bureaucratic businesspeople engage in a step-by-step investigative journalism procedural. Despite sounding mundane, it’s engaging to witness the breaking down or exhaustive examination of the actions taken to bring a major news story to print, including the dealings with lawyers on both sides, the negotiations with corrupt or paranoid executives, and power struggles among all the various players (politics, police, and morals all clash when it comes to combating the church). Interviews and interrogations replace casual conversations and the gathering of facts (from clippings and records offices alike) replaces the collecting of clues. It’s approached like a mystery, in which the viewer is privy only to what the characters see, but the intrigue revolves around the maddening subject matter far more than the artistry.
There are almost no traditional storytelling techniques at work in “Spotlight.” Adventure, romance, comedy, thrills, suspense, and even drama are generally absent, substituted by montages of door-knocking and phone-calling and book-reading. By most standards, this would all be unbearably dull. But the unveiling of systemic corruption and cover-ups, particularly when the church exercises such influence over the legal system, is so shocking and infuriating that the lack of theatrical interactions or cinematic conventions is largely ignorable. Even when the pacing stumbles over the historical intervening of 9/11 or the numerous delays in courtroom proceedings, a certain pulse-pounding anticipation crops up. It’s riveting without much more than a raised voice or two. For many, this won’t constitute movie material, but the understating of sensationalism and the authenticity of the ensemble performers makes for a powerful bit of entertainment.