Once commonly used to describe the vital, fundamental function of a free press in a democratic society, the “Fourth Estate,” along with what it symbolized, has fallen into disuse. Corporate owned and controlled media long ago became the norm, not the exception, channeling, if not outright choking off, the free flow of truth-filled information between the press and readers or viewers. First Amendment protections still exist, of course, but a right left unused for too long eventually ceases to be a right. Intentionally or not, writer-director Tom McCarthy’s (Win Win, The Visitor, The Station Agent) latest film, Spotlight, functions both as an all-important history lesson and as a necessary reminder of what a free, unencumbered press can do with sufficient time and resources to thoroughly investigate and expose institutional wrongdoing, moral, ethical, and legal. In the case of Spotlight, the institution in question, the Roman Catholic Church, lacked the transparency and the accountability necessary to curb years of wrongdoing (sexual crimes against children and the repeated, consistent cover-ups that followed).
The Boston Globe “Spotlight” team we meet in 2001, Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), the acerbic team leader and editor, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), lead investigative reporter, and the two other reporters, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), exist in an almost parallel universe to the day-to-day operations of the newspaper they call their professional home. Under Robinson’s guidance, they not only select the topics or subjects they want to investigate in depth, they have the long-gone luxury of spending months researching and writing the series of articles published under the “Spotlight” banner. A new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), however, nudges the Spotlight team to investigate the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, a subject they reluctantly embrace, in part because of each member’s relationship with the Catholic Church (as one-time or current believers and practitioners) and in part because of the Catholic Church’s secular, temporal power in local politics.
But dig they do. Over weeks, then months, each member of the Spotlight team takes the mostly analog approach of interviewing victims, including a victims’ rights advocate, Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), their managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), repeatedly dismisses, deep-diving into old, musty archives and annual residence records, and doggedly pursuing every lead, including a perpetually short-tempered, obsessive victims’ attorney, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who may hold the key to connecting the ever-widening pedophilia scandal (a number that grows to nearly 90 confirmed pedophile-priests in the Boston area alone) and the Catholic Church’s hierarchy who more than likely knew, protected the sexual predators who wore priest’s collars by moving them from parish to parish, and bought off the victims and their families. “More than likely,” however, isn’t enough for the Spotlight team to report the Church’s cover-up as fact (anything less and a lawsuit would likely follow).
Co-written with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), McCarthy’s script deftly balances grounded, detailed character moments with the painstakingly methodical procedural aspects of investigative journalism. Each character has their moment of doubt, in themselves, in what they believed in, in whether they were sufficiently attentive or simply willfully ignorant when the first or second news broke about the pedophilia scandal, but despite recognizably human character flaws (e.g., Rezendes, boundary pusher and human steamroller; Bradlee’s go along to get along attitude; Robinson’s cautious reticence), their common values, of pursuing the truth, objective truth, of reporting criminal behavior, institutional, not just individual, make them for wont of a better, less overused word, “heroes,” the kind of journalistic heroes seemingly in short supply in our short attention span, celebrity-obsessed, ephemeral culture. As such, Spotlight isn’t just a history lesson or a reminder of what journalism, at its best, can offer, but how it can shed light on hidden, uncomfortable truths and help force social, cultural, and political change (for the better).
McCarthy’s tight focus on the procedural aspects of the story limit the number of character moments each actor receives, but the uniformly excellent ensemble cast, each actor complementing the other (or others), never stumble or falter even during the more heavy-handed, exposition-filled scenes (like Rezendes’ night-time phone calls with a verbose, info-dumping ex-priest, present in Spotlight primarily as an expository vehicle, not a narrative or emotional one). Better still, the four-member Spotlight team looks and feels like a well integrated, smoothly functioning group, a testament both to McCarthy’s ease with realistic dialogue, spot-on characterizations, and top-to-bottom, award-worthy performances from a deeply committed cast. Chances are, Spotlight will receive — and possibly win — SAG’s award for best ensemble early next year. It’s a pity that the Academy Awards doesn’t have a comparable category.