Bostonians tend toward insularity that often comes off like rudeness. In truth, that stereotypical coarseness is a blend of honesty and austerity: They favor candor over sensitivity, and act like total introverts in the interest of honoring their neighbors’ privacy. Tom McCarthy’s latest film, Spotlight, appreciates that social shuttering better, perhaps, than it appreciates its subject matter. People here can chatter all day long about Tom Brady’s mansome beauty, New York’s quantifiable suckitude and whether MassDOT will ever fix the goddamn T. If you bring up topics of a personal or distressing nature, though, you risk getting the door slammed in your face—and, without making too trite a point, few topics are as personal or distressing as ecclesiastical sexual abuse.
Spotlight is the second major studio-driven picture in 2015 to study Boston’s more infamous bêtes noires. In September, Black Mass painted Whitey Bulger as the prosthetic-laden monster hiding under your bed. Now, just on the cusp of Oscar season, McCarthy’s film details The Boston Globe’s early 2000s coverage of the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic archdiocese, which began in the City proper before extending to Canada, Ireland and beyond. (The film takes its name from the Globe’s longstanding investigative unit, which did the legwork in publicizing the story.) If you’re not familiar with the specifics of the impropriety, Spotlight breaks it down thusly: Pedophilic priests molested kids in their parishes for decades, and, when caught, enjoyed off-the-books settlements and clerical reappointments instead of jail time, courtesy of the church’s corrupt ruling body and its outsized local influence.
There’s more to the story than that, of course, much more, and the movie explicates its facts cleanly while resisting the considerable temptations of overdramatizing them: Spotlight is prestige fare that’s quiet rather than flashy, treating its content and characters with a measure of respect rarely seen among industry biopics of its caliber. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer want to make a statement, but they’re both smart enough to know that the material itself is statement enough. They’ve made a film about the looming terror of spiritual betrayal, set among communities that treat the church as significant components of their collective backbone.
They have also made a film about journalists putting their heads down and simply doing their jobs. Spotlight feels like an ode to a pre-Internet era of nose-to-the-grindstone reporting and the results yielded by doggedly chasing leads and following up with sources. The film’s investigative bent manages to be gripping and compelling in ways it reasonably shouldn’t: There is very little, on paper, that’s cinematic about the process of gathering data, fact-checking, conducting witness interviews and tying it all together in a Word doc. Yet McCarthy makes journalistic practices arresting, and occasionally even dangerous, without trumping up reality.
When Globe reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), or editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), make face-to-face contact with abuse victims, or their lawyers, or the church’s lawyers, you may feel your neck stiffen with unease. In these moments, you expect the tension to snap at the swing of a fist. There’s a great deal at stake here, of course: The church maintains such a high position of power in Boston that the principal characters are treated like apostates for daring to accuse priests of wrongdoing. (It’s worth noting that the Globe’s subscriber base is more than 50% Catholic.) But Spotlight prefers a blunter presentation to self-serious theatricality. Appropriately, the chief source of conflict here lies in what people don’t say, and not what they do. The film is fascinated by the cultures of silence seen in both the church itself and Boston at large, to say nothing of the muting fear experienced by victims of abuse. They’re understandably afraid to speak up.
But McCarthy primarily wants to explore the narrative of the Globe staffers who brought that narrative to the public’s attention. Part of what makes the film work is that the Globe’s chronicle of the archdiocese’s misdeeds is deeply engrossing on its own merits. Reading piece after piece about case after case has a way of keeping one glued to his or her seat. If McCarthy is shrewd in his approach to Spotlight’s content, though, he’s even more shrewd in his approach to casting actors capable of infusing the film’s substance with humanity. Ruffalo, McAdams, Keaton and Brian d’Arcy James ably lead the ensemble, while Liev Schreiber plays Globe editor Marty Baron with a hushed reservation that’s atypical of Spotlight’s genre. Schreiber, the unexpected protagonist of the piece, offers the buttoned-up presence of an outsider, seldom at the center of the action and more often a background element in the film’s mise en scène: The sum total of the man is observed in one of the film’s final shots as he sits at his desk, typing away, nearly invisible in the frame as he goes about his business. (John Slattery, meanwhile, shows up to act like Roger Sterling, less boozy and brash but equally as prickly.)
Together they make a great team, which, in the end, is half the point of the exercise. The other half lies in examining the taciturn particularities of the film’s locale. Spotlight captures Boston’s reticence with unflinching clarity in ways that other Boston-based joints don’t care to. There’s a Chinatown reference floating just beneath the surface here, a resigned admission that citizens of the Hub are shaped by that stiff upper lip for better or for worse. The film isn’t just about events that transpired in Boston, but Boston itself. It’s as much a snapshot of the City as it is a portrait of a moment in its lifespan.
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writer: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Michael Keaton, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan
Release Date: November 6, 2015
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.