Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Live Schreiber, Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Stanley Tucci
In the time since its release overseas, Spotlight has been called many things — “superlative”, a “detective drama that takes place in the newsroom”, “one of the best films on journalism of all time”, “right p there with Citizen Kane and All The President’s Men”. None of the praise is undeserved. In a world full of glittering rhinestones, Spotlight is like a quietly shining gem. But enough paens. Let’s get on with the story.
We begin in the newsroom of the Boston Globe, where the journalists are waiting for their new editor Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) to take charge. There’s a lot of apprehension among these seasoned reporters — Baron isn’t like them, born and brought up in Boston. He’s an “outsider”. There are even whispers that he will bring with him dreaded “cuts”, layoffs. And their new editor’s reserved demeanour doesn’t put the employees at ease when they do meet him.
In his very first edit meeting with the reporters, Baron points to a column written by one of the staffers — a lawyer called Mitchell Garribedean (Stanley Tucci) is representing several individuals who were abused as children by their priests, and has said that the authorities in the church knew about it, but let the errant priests continue preaching nonetheless. Baron asks why none of the reporters have followed up on the story in any in-depth way, beyond covering the major developments.
The reporters are nonplussed; what more might they have possibly uncovered. But Baron insists that there is a larger story there and asks the newspaper’s highly respected special investigative team — called Spotlight — to take on the project.
The Spotlight team — led by Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and comprising journalists Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — starts working on the story, tracking down as many reports as they can about priests who abused children and were charged by the police. Insights from Mitchell Garribedean are essential for them to make any headway, but the lawyer’s a busy man, and quite a character, and not interested in the press covering his case. But as Mike Rezendes dogs his footsteps, he eventually gives in and provides the team with some leads to follow, in addition to introducing them to some of the survivors he is representing, who are willing to share their story.
But as the Spotlight team delves deeper and deeper into the case, they find that the cases they know about are the merest tip of the iceberg — and that the net of abuse, the priests who perpetrated it, the children they victimised and the extent the church officials went to, to cover up these incidents, and put the abusive priests “back into circulation” where they continued to harm other children — is far, far wider than they could have ever estimated. And even as they interview courageous survivors who have somehow managed to get their lives back on track, some of the offender priests, lawyers who represented the church, the team constantly comes up against issues of their own faith (or that of their families’), the attempts of the church and its supporters to stonewall their investigation at every turn, and also the changed attitudes of old friends/peers who feel the good the church does must not be overshadowed by the bad. What Robbie, Sacha, Mike and Matt manage to uncover, and its impact, forms the crux of this tautly unfolding film.
The investigation by the Spotlight team — a fine example of “shoe leather reporting” (one that requires a lot of footwork) — led the Boston Globe to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2001-02. It was an example of the kind of journalism that has the power to set right the wrongs and injustices that are committed against a section of society that cannot speak up for itself. The kind of reportage that journalism students all over the world dream of doing when they take up a career in this field: Clever, tenacious, resourceful, courageous, and impactful.
That this story is based entirely on real life — with enough homework done on each of the real life personalities and their interactions — makes it beyond remarkable. Each of the actors in this ensemble cast — be it Live Schreiber who does a brilliant job of bringing a legendary editor like Marty Baron to the screen; or Mark Ruffalo, who just slips into the physicalities of Mike Rezendes so comfortably; Michael Keaton’s restrained Robinson; even the actors in the smaller roles — are perfectly cast. There are no false notes, no missteps; in short, Spotlight is perfect.
Tom McCarthy, who previously wrote the very delightful animated feature Up, is in the contention for a Best Original Screenplay and Best Director prize at the upcoming Academy Awards (Spotlight has six Oscar nominations in all). Whether he wins in those categories or not, McCarthy deserves all the kudos possible for bringing such a relevant story to the big screen. Just like the Spotlight team first brought to light a story that the world needed to pay attention to, McCarthy’s film shines a light on the efforts of these brave men (and woman). Spotlight reminds us, just as the team of reporters it is named after once did, that yes, there is evil in this world, but there is also courage and goodness, and that in many cases, they do triumph.