In nearly every shot that takes place outdoors in “Spotlight,” the camera captures a church. Sometimes a character points it out, noting, for example, its proximity to a playground. In others, the camera lingers on a steeple and, in others still, a tower sits unassumingly, blending in amongst the modern architecture.
The city of Boston has a small-town feel, possessing a deep connection to its history, and so rooted with it a deep connection to religion; from its founding, Boston has been a Christian city. And somewhere along the way, when the institution of the Catholic Church became ingrained into the fabric of the city itself and in the hearts of the predominantly Catholic populace, religion seemed to forsake morality to maintain that institution.
“Spotlight” is the true story of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigative team as they exposed the decades-long mass cover-up of the Church’s blind eye to priests who had molested children. Like its subject, the film unfolds gradually, creeping along ever closer to its conclusion. Since the narrative itself is fairly well known (the story won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 after it was published in January 2002), its dramatic turns stem not from sudden twists but from the careful revelation of new information — the “eureka” moments that link seemingly disparate threads.
The film relies primarily on its narrative and actors to carry the audience through this tale. There is no complex cinematography to catch the eye — shots instead are, with few exceptions, fairly stationary. The only truly “cinematic” moment in “Spotlight” comes with the slow zoom out of the camera as the team talks on the phone with a priest-turned-psychotherapist as he discusses the seemingly endemic issue of child molestation in the Catholic church; that zoom out parallels the team’s realization of the scope of the matter at hand. “Spotlight” concerns itself with, like its subjects, revealing the information in a direct, uncomplicated manner. Like any good reporter, it wants to nail the story, make it stick and let the public decide how to process that information.
“Spotlight” then could be best described as understated; it does not idolize its protagonists, nor does it necessarily vilify (to the extent expected, at least) its antagonists. It presents its characters as human beings, each of whom possess some sort of flaw, whether it’s an excessive commitment to work or the inadvertent perpetuation of the corrupt system. Multiple characters utter phrases like “I was just doing my job” and “It didn’t seem plausible at the time,” which maybe serves as a psychological defense mechanism for those even tangentially involved, but also simply highlights the very human quality of stumbling — to err is human, after all.
The actors maintain this realism superbly. Rather than approach his or her character with the intent of reaping Oscar gold, each actor finds the character’s need to balance the emotions of such a highly controversial and significant story with the dutiful necessity of completing the task. These main characters, journalists and lawyers mostly, recognize that they serve the public, not themselves and the broken system.
Of the Spotlight team, Mark Ruffalo (“The Avengers: Age of Ultron”) stands out the most, if only because he speaks the one charged monologue about the obligation of publishing the story immediately for the sake of any victims. But Michael Keaton (“Birdman”) and Rachel McAdams (“Southpaw”) both inject nuance and care into their roles as equally as Ruffalo does into his. Liev Schreiber (“Pawn Sacrifice”), as the new editor of The Globe, and Stanley Tucci (“The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2”), as a frazzled lawyer looking to finally bring abuse victims’ cases to the public, embrace the quirk of their characters, portraying them as somewhat off-putting but also endearing. It cannot be overstated just how finely attuned each of these actors are to their roles; it’s so refreshing to watch an ensemble piece where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Comparisons to “All the President’s Men” are inevitable, and certainly not misguided, though “Spotlight” is far less political than the former. Both films focus on the day-to-day, the unfolding of a story as it slowly generates steam until the wheels spin fast enough that it ultimately writes itself. It doesn’t always run smoothly — leads get lost, more pertinent matters arise (9/11 occurred as the story just started to pick up for Spotlight). And, in each, the job never ends — both films’ closing shots suggest the real work has only just begun. The characters identify and open the floodgates, but it’s in realizing, accepting and fixing the fallout from the deluge that poses the real challenge.
But in depicting just how those floodgates do get opened, the film poses some very taught questions. Tucci’s character, in talking with Ruffalo, points out that the two men exploring the scandal, himself and the new Globe editor, are Armenian and Jewish, respectively, and that this is not a coincidence. Time and routine inevitably lead to complacency, and complacency leads to blindness. It takes someone outside the system, like a journalist or sometimes a filmmaker, to dig where others feel is hallowed ground, or point the camera where we fear to look — and sometimes that means reminding us of just how badly we messed up. “Spotlight,” in this sense, is a modern, real-life fable that reminds us how far we’ve come, but cautions us to avoid complacency. The real work, after all, has only just begun.