So I’m talking to a friend the other day, and he says “I don’t see why we need the news anymore if we have social media.” The minute I stopped beating him senseless whilst vomiting due to the sulfuric smell of stupidity, I pointed out that Twitter has yet to take down a sitting American President like Woodward and Bernstein did. Spotlight is a well-crafted (if slightly stiff) reminder that good journalism, real journalism, isn’t just important, it may be the only thing that can stop unspeakable evil at times.
Spotlight is the retelling of how a handful of reporters at the Boston Globe exposed one of the most repellant chapters in the oft-repellant history of the Catholic Church. Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the head of the “Spotlight” team at the Globe. His reporters, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), are deep-dive investigative journalists.
Days after arriving in 2001, new Globe editor, Marty Baron (Live Schreiber), tasks the squad to investigate allegations that high-ranking members of the Boston Catholic Clergy were sheltering child molesters. Attacking the Catholic Church in Boston is akin to wearing a cheesehead in Soldier Field. Everyone wants the team to drop it, but they can’t. What starts out as a journalistic addiction to discovering the truth becomes a moral crusade, as Robby’s team finds victim after victim and molester after molester.
The biggest problem with Spotlight is actually a side effect of its biggest strength. This isn’t the story of the people who exposed the scandal, this is the story of the process it took to do so. What that means is that far more time is spent showing how the dots were connected than examining the toll it took on those connecting said dots. Sure, there are brief moments near the film’s end when we see Robby confront his implicit guilt, Mike have a temper tantrum and Sacha break her church-loving Nana’s heart. But none of them feel like anything approaching three-dimensional, despite each being played by masters of their craft.
In a sense, the most well-developed character in the film isn’t a human being but journalism itself. Responsible journalism spurns sound-bite obsessions and the race to break news; it is methodical and patient but relentless. At one point, Mike is tasked to get information from a curmudgeonly and odd attorney named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). No matter how much he gets stonewalled, Mike keeps pestering him, like ocean waves relentlessly pounding until resistance erodes. And that’s what defines journalism every bit as much as when Robby decides to hold the story longer to get the “real” bad guys.
Spotlight isn’t perfect. Its jangly score is oddly obnoxious, certain moments feel far too self-congratulatory and the Catholic Church actually gets off fairly light, given the circumstances. Still, as a much-needed ode to the type of media coverage this country is desperately, painfully, ominously in need of, Spotlight is a very important film.
Grade = A-