A humanizing, unsensational exposé that gets it just right

Likely to be a major winner at the Academy Awards, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is not only a great film but a vitally important one. That importance has less to do with the specific story it tells than with the film’s general subject matter: investigative journalism.

I believe risky investigative journalism is the most important prophetic work of our time.

The specific story is based on true events, so I will take the liberty of describing more of the plot than usual, with a spoiler warning for those who don’t know the facts and might want to watch the film without knowing them.

In 2001, a group of investigative journalists working for the Boston Globe’s special Spotlight team discovered that more than 70 Catholic priests in Boston alone had been sexually abusing children over the past few decades. This was shocking and scandalous enough, but the real mega-scandal was that the church hierarchy was aware of these abuses and not only covered them up but also allowed the guilty priests to continue their work after moving them to other locations. The local district attorney was also implicated in the cover-up because he made regular plea deals with the church to keep the abuses confidential.

The Spotlight team is played by Michael Keaton (the team’s leader), Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d’Arcy. John Slattery plays the man overseeing the Spotlight department and Liev Schreiber plays the Globe’s editor, the man who initially alerted the Spotlight team to the potential scandal. Spotlight is an ensemble effort and this cast is terrific. I was particularly moved by Schreiber’s nuanced and understated performance.

Noteworthy are the physical characteristics displayed by the actors in their portrayals, providing insight into each of the characters, though one complaint I have is that we see too little of the characters’ home lives. Critical for me, however, is the way all of the characters in the office are depicted as good, sincere people working incredibly hard to do what’s right and to expose, at great risk to their careers, a cover-up that reaches the highest levels of the church and justice systems. I loved each of these characters.

But you may have noted that I haven’t mentioned any of the characters’ names. That’s because Spotlight isn’t so much a story about these characters as it is a story of the team effort and the process and work of investigative journalism. This is key to the film’s greatness. Neither the story of the investigation (which moves along in a fairly straightforward manner, showing how each reporter contributed to the exposé) nor the scandal itself is sensationalized in any way. I might have enjoyed seeing a bit more passion, but at a time when so many true events are sensationalized and so much of the news media focuses on sensationalism, this is a breath of fresh air.

Another breath of fresh air is the way Spotlight avoids demonizing the priests and church hierarchy who have committed such horrible offences. While obviously depicting their crimes as heinous, these men are treated with dignity and the film goes out of its way to reveal their positive attributes. This is a surprising and very welcome example of the way films, today more than ever, need to focus on humanization.

All of the above reflects a remarkably well-written and well-paced screenplay. It not only is intelligent and wise, but also manages to be simultaneously quiet and slow moving as well as suspenseful and gripping. And the ending of the film is just right. McCarthy’s direction is very tight. The cinematography and score are not extraordinary, but do the job (that is, I’m not sure if these features are part of the understated nature of the film as a whole, and thus to be lauded, or whether there is room for improvement here).

I have mentioned before that I believe risky investigative journalism is the most important prophetic work of our time. By presenting that work in the way it does, Spotlight will inspire people to take it on; not for fame or fortune, not for sensationalism or the huge headlines, but because the people of this world need to know the truth about what’s really going on (there are all too many cover-ups out there waiting to be exposed). Spotlight is not to be missed.

Spotlight is rated R for language and subject matter.