DVD Release Date: February 23, 2016
Theatrical Release Date: November 6, 2015 (limited); expands through November
Rating: R (for strong language, including sexual references)
Run Time: 128 min
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup
Spotlight is going to open up a lot of still-tender wounds, but in a way that respects and validates the victims rather than exploiting them.
It dramatizes the 2001 year-long Boston Globe investigation into the sexual molestation of underage boys by Catholic priests over several decades, and the alliance between church and government officials to keep it quiet. The shocking scope of local abuse and cover-up would extend nationally and globally, even to the Vatican itself. Spotlight (which derives its title from the Globe's special unit for long-form investigative journalism) follows the team of reporters as they uncover it all.
For a topic so delicate and laden with controversy, it's no small miracle that writer/director Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) gives us a movie that's never sensationalized. Specifics are delivered in direct, blunt conversations, and on occasion with explicit sexual detail, but never with a lurid linger. On the contrary, Spotlight is a sober, sensitive look at some very hard truths, one that is concerned exclusively with the facts, not in making a commentary on their source.
To that end, for those who fear that this movie may exist simply to create a soapbox on which to rail against religion, McCarthy's script never takes that easy bait. Yes, it does confront the corruption of a religious institution (with the aide of a governmental one), but it never extends that confrontation to make an indictment on the nature of Christianity, its beliefs, people of faith, or Roman Catholic dogma. Spotlight is neither anti-Catholic nor anti-Christian. It has no secular axe to grind. It's simply anti-corruption, and seeks justice for the abused.
In fact, so understated is the approach that the film's deliberately-paced first act runs the risk of making audiences worry if they're in for lifeless, procedural bore. But setting that tone is vital, because once the disturbing particulars begin to emerge – especially through some emotionally volatile victim interviews – the sparse aesthetic allows the truth to land with an authentic weight, in our gut. It makes its impact entirely by its own gravity rather than by the contrived cinematic devices of gritty flashbacks, manipulative music, or scenery-chewing performances. The film approaches the facts and its victims with the same thoughtfulness the reporters do, and so the truth then strikes us with the same unvarnished wallop.
Along with being an investigation into a massive scandal, Spotlight also examines the journalistic process. The movie's patient tone reflects the patience needed by these dogged, determined reporters as they chase the story rather than the headline. They overcome obstacles – like the names of priestly perpetrators being sealed – by discovering patterns in parish reassignments that reveal who the likely molesters were. It's a disciplined, comprehensive approach that would be sabotaged if they gave into the temptation of reporting every single morsel immediately.
It's an understandable temptation, too, which is why (as portrayed here) the best journalism is done as a team, led by an editor with the long-view of what the whole effort should lead to (i.e. actual change) rather than the rash impulse to report a specific exclusive (which only results in, at best, momentary sales). It's refreshing to see reporters proceed with caution rather than zeal, even when given the most juicy details and confessions.
Those reporters are brought to life by one of the more impressive ensembles to grace the screen in quite some time, with performances that rank among the best by those who are in it. Michael Keaton (Birdman) and Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher) are the default leads of a stacked cast that shares screen time equally, with Keaton and Liev Schreiber (Salt) serving as the editors who help the team members stay focused on the forest as each researches deep into the trees. Stanley Tucci (The Terminal) is also a standout as a savvy, principled lawyer who guides Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes without ever compromising ethics or, by extension, the case. The actors never resort to theatrics, never grandstanding or upstaging others in an attempt to have "their Oscar moment." And in the few scenes when debates do become heated, the shouting isn't melodramatically forced; it's warranted.
Spotlight doesn't portray its reporters as heroes. In fact, it even goes so far as to indict the Globe itself, for its own complicity in not having pursued the story years earlier when it had the information to do so. These reporters aren't just exposing guilt; they share in it. And just because they're doing something about it now doesn't absolve them of the fact that they could've done something much sooner. McCarthy won't allow a sympathetic bias to conceal the Globe's own sins.
By welcome coincidence, Spotlight and Truth – another current theatrical release about a controversial 2004 CBS report – serve as a perfect compare-and-contrast on how to dramatically depict the journalistic process. Spotlight does everything right that Truth does wrong, offering up raw complexity over Truth's liberal mythologizing. Spotlight doesn't puff itself up with congratulatory self-righteous indignation. It's measured, even humble, as it tackles a grave topic with necessary, uncompromising candor.
CAUTIONS (may contain spoilers):
- Drugs/Alcohol: Some occasional, casual alcohol consumption.
- Language/Profanity: Strong language is spoken throughout. The S-word is used regularly. Eight instances of the Lord’s name taken in vain. Three uses of the F-word. Five instances of crude/vulgar terms, a couple uses of the A-word, along with five other mild profanities.
- Sexual Content/Nudity: Some explicit details and references to acts of molestation, such as multiple references to oral sex, fondling, and intercourse. Nothing is visualized or depicted, only discussed. Verbal references to pornography and homosexuality.
- Violence/Other: None visualized. Detailed discussions of the sexual molestation of minors, as mentioned above.
Publication date: November 19, 2015
Jeff Huston is a writer/director/editor for Steelehouse Productions, a film & video production company in Tulsa, Oklahoma. He also publishes a movie blog that can be found at icantunseethatmovie.com, and is a member of the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle. In 2015, his short film Pink Shorts was a finalist in HBO's Project Greenlight competition, and was one of six winners in that show's online "Greenie Awards."