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Pretty soon, they won’t make movies like Spotlight anymore, and that will be a shame. The true story of the Boston Globe’s investigation into child abuse in the Catholic Church is a winningly old-fashioned newsroom depiction in the vein of All the President’s Men or His Girl Friday. There are only so many of these left: Newspapers are perpetually on the verge of extinction, and when they go, the genre will also be lost to the digital dustbin. Films like Spotlight—a well-acted, workmanlike drama—are a rare breed these days; especially ones with a mid-range budget that relies on critical acclaim and word-of-mouth for the film to succeed financially (the Oscar buzz surrounding the film certainly helps, too).
So let’s celebrate the virtues of Spotlight while we can. Tom McCarthy’s superb film is not just set in the world of printed news, but it also functions as a thoughtful argument for its necessity. Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, director of a Globe news department specializing in long, in-depth investigations. When the Globe brings in new Editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to boost revenue, Robinson worries that his department will be on the chopping block. He’s pleasantly surprised when Baron gives him the go-ahead to pursue a controversial story about abuse perpetrated by local priests—and worried about what might happen if it goes wrong.
The film deftly establishes the deep influence of the Catholic Church in the Boston community—McCarthy often frames his actors literally in the shadow of looming churches—but the biggest obstacles are internalized ones. Spotlight nails the insular nature of Boston, depicting a religious institution so intertwined with the city and its inhabitants that no one can bear to reckon with its horrible realities. Robinson and his team of reporters—played by Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams—interview troubled victims, elderly priests, and sleazy lawyers (Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci, both terrific) in search of the truth, but the film also turns its critical gaze inward. Throughout the film lies a looming fear that Robinson and his colleagues dropped the ball themselves—after all, these accusations had been floating around for years—and that one of the powerful institutions that kept this story buried all those years may have been the Globe itself.
How rare and satisfying it is for a film to enter into this type of dialogue within itself, examining with a close lens the very instruments it celebrates in order to make them stronger. This self-critical perspective is buttressed by Spotlight’s honest, no-frills narrative approach. McCarthy doesn’t offer any artistic flourishes, and he never cheats the audience; with very few exceptions, the film gives us information at the same time its protagonists receive it, a tactic that neatly aligns the viewers with the characters.
Similarly, the terrific cast serves the story first and for the most part, eschews the kind of showy acting that we typically see in issue dramas this time of year. There aren’t many big speeches or heart-rending glimpses into the characters’ personal lives. The subtle, egoless performances by the cast frees the audience up to invest in the facts of the story, which McCarthy insists take precedent over the characters. It’s easy to imagine that the real people on whom these characters are based would celebrate that choice, which is just another way that this stellar journalistic film honors the truth.
Spotlight opens Friday at E Street Cinema and Angelika Film Center at Mosaic.