Nowadays, when a movie claims that it is "Based on True Events," it tends to use the phrase very loosely. For that reason, before watching the critically acclaimed Spotlight, I read the original story published back in 2002 by the Boston Globe's Spotlight investigative team of reporters that brought to light the story of the Catholic Church’s cover-up of child sex abuse. Such a delicate topic warranted arming myself with enough information to separate facts from fluff, which adaptations normally include to make the story more appealing to the general public. I thought I was ready for the Hollywood treatment of this story and let me tell you, I wasn't prepared for the way director Thomas McCarthy (The Wire, Win Win) handled all this.
In 2001, Marty Barton (Liev Shreiber) became the editor of the Boston Globe and put the paper's investigative team, Spotlight, in charge of the allegations of child sex abuse involving Catholic priests. There were already reports about these events, but Barton wanted to know if these apparent isolated cases were part of a much larger cover-up that went all the way up to higher levels of the institution. Once the Spotlight team, led by editor Walter 'Robby' Robinson (Michael Keaton), began to dig deeper in to the events that went back as far as three decades of reports of abuse, and unearthed reports of the victims and people that protected the Catholic church. When the team started to uncover a trail connecting a slew of cases, all parties involved in the cover-up started to take notice and began to push back. Here's where the movie sets itself apart from everything else.
Normally, in other movies handling topics such as this one, the audience is treated at this point to moments of suspense and at every turn we worried about the safety of our 'heroes', waiting for 'evil' to strike from the shadows. These moments never come, thanks to the objectivity with which director Thomas McCarthy uses to handle this situation. It never sensationalize the process of the investigation, it is never flashy and never tries to cheapen the narrative with dramatic shots to engage the viewer.
The topic is already provocative enough to get people in the movie theater seats but what keeps you engaged is the display of trust and free reign given to the actors to tell this story from an emotional point of view that impacts more than any Hollywood enhancement could ever accomplish. The driving force of the movie is the process of investigative journalism, how important it is and how we have forgotten all about it.
Today, we are more concerned to be the first ones to break the news without any substance and do not care about the damage we cause with our carelessness. We'd rather apologize later for the irreversible damage that our "story" caused but console ourselves by all the views we acquire and pat ourselves on the back for bringing this to everyone's attention. Ironically, we have more tools at our disposal than the Spotlight team had back then, before social media and smart phones were available. We should be able to stop tragedies like this before it gets out of our hands, but, sadly, we decided a long time ago that the main story should be ourselves.
For this reason alone, Spotlight becomes a very important film and it couldn't have come at a better time. The film is a tribute to investigative journalism and the movie moves at the same pace of its process. It takes its time to establish all the pieces to inform the audience and then breaks down all the elements so we can understand the why, who, when, what and how of all things.
More importantly, the ensemble is outstanding and everyone involved has a chance to shine. The aforementioned actors are joined by Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer and Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll as the team of reporters led by Michael Keaton's "Robby" Robinson. And the movie does a great job of not trying to romanticize or make these characters bigger than the issue at hand.
Once they open the proverbial Pandora's Box, we get to see other players involved in this situation starting with Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and attorneys Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who represented the victims and Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) who settled the cases.
All at the same time, their environment is palpable and you can feel the beating heart of the city of Boston giving you a real feel for the city. Once again, you feel the respect with which this movie was approached and everything and everyone is enhanced by the raw and simple cinematography used throughout the movie.
As a footnote, one of the reasons this movie excels, is that during this situation something even bigger happened during these events. That incident was the terrorist attacks of 9/11. Director Thomas McArthy handles this situation with class and doesn't allow it to become a distraction without demeaning the impact of the tragedy. This situation could have derailed the whole momentum of the movie but instead, it just made us understand more the hardships of the real journalists. These people are doing their job and even though a major tragedy was happening around them, they still cannot forget the personal tragedies of the people they promise to help. It is an important moment in the movie and director Thomas McCarthy manages to keep everything together.
This is an honest movie and it can be noticed by the actors performance trying not to steal any of the scenes they are in together. They understand the importance of the topic and never deviate from their task which is showing us how important journalism is to our society without forgetting about the victims.
There is another movie that puts the sexual abuse of children by a priest front and center and serves as the counterpart for Spotlight. That movie is Doubt. In it, there's a small exchange that encompasses both movies and separates them at the same time, even-though they touch upon the same issue:
Investigative journalism is all about the lengthy and exhaustive process to uncover the truth and self-righteousness is that tiny little voice in our head that strips away all objectivity and principles which should serve us to continue the process and more often than not, it blinds us.
Father Brendan Flynn: You haven't the slightest proof of anything!
Sister Aloysius Beauvier: But I have my certainty! And armed with that, I will go to your last parish, and the one before that if necessary. I'll find a parent.
Yes, Spotlight puts the Catholic Church right in the cross-hairs and we are waiting for the movie to pull the trigger but it quickly reminds us that the finger ready to fire our ammo full of judgement, should be put to better use and point at everyone around the mark including ourselves. There's plenty of blame to be shared around and we could be as guilty as them by thinking ourselves as innocent bystanders. The film reminds us to take a step back, take a deep breath and think twice before we say something we'll regret in the future.
Spotlight gives us a second chance to rethink our priorities and reminds us that if we have the means to tell a story, it shouldn't have to be about ourselves.