Journalism films are not very popular these days. The most successful example to date is 1976’s Watergate drama All the President’s Men, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. In recent years, however, journalism-related dramas have fallen out of popularity. Shattered Glass focused on the ethics of journalism and the dangers of fabricating stories, but it was not a hit at the box office. Nor did the Wikileaks film The Fifth Estate, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, make much of an impact. To many critics, audiences do not seem too invested in watching reporters pursue the facts, track down the sources, and fight to see their stories get published.
Perhaps the exception to that rule is Spotlight, an Academy Award-winning film directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy. Set in 2001, the plot focuses on the Boston Globe’s unraveling of the Catholic Church’s sexual abuse cases. McCarthy’s focus is on the Spotlight team of journalists who discovered the pedophile ring and sought to break the story.
Beginning in the late 1970s, the story quickly establishes the Church and is eager to make the rumors of abuse go away, but the traditional response is to simply relocate guilty priests to another church or seminary. In the present day, a few months before 9/11, news editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) joins the Globe and becomes acquainted with editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Soon afterwards, Marty reads an article that alleges that the Church knew about priests abusing children but did nothing to stop it.
Determined to uncover the truth, the Spotlight team sets out to gather evidence on the scandal. Sacha begins interviewing victims and gradually learns about a systematic cover-up of abuse. Things take an ugly turn when the research proves there are ninety suspected priests still living around parishes and schools in Boston.
The discovery is deeply unsettling for the team, because they are all from Catholic backgrounds.
When the 9/11 attacks happen, the Globe takes the cover-up story off the agenda, and it appears the team’s efforts were in vain. Despite his initial skepticism about the case, Bradlee comes to agree with Robby that pursuing the story is the right thing to do. New evidence reveals that the Archbishop purposely ignored the complaints of molestation, and the group manages to score a victory in getting legal documents released. However, they have to get the story out there before other publications beat them to the scoop.
Michael Keaton delivers a quiet, nuanced performance as Robby Robinson. Known for playing troubled characters in Batman and Birdman, he plays the role with a troubled nature and a somber mood. His most dramatic moment comes when he meets with a former classmate who was molested by a coach and teacher. When faced with his old friend, Robby admits he himself was spared the abuse because he “didn’t make the hockey team.”
The rest of the cast is stellar in their roles with Schrieber in fine form as Marty, demonstrating his forward-thinking assertiveness in urging the others to keep chasing the story. Ruffalo showcases his dramatic range as Michael Rezendes, especially when he rants to disbelieving colleagues that the truth needs to be told. His inability to look past the Church’s crimes of abuse is heartbreaking, as well as understandable. McAdams provides a fine layer of vulnerability as Sacha, who struggles with her own family’s faith being shaken and Slattery’s gruff, patriarchal Bradlee almost brings his former Mad Men character Roger Sterling to mind.
McCarthy and Josh Singer’s Academy Award-winning script is successful in depicting the struggles faced by modern journalists in the digital age. The Spotlight team’s attempts to obtain court documents but, are continually met with appeals and continuances from the Church’s lawyers. One of the film’s most unnerving scenes involves a priest freely confessing his crimes to Sacha at his home. While it might seem surreal and even farfetched, the incident is confirmed to have happened.
Spotlight is one of 2015’s finest movies and possibly the best journalism film since All the President’s Men. McCarthy’s direction is successful in bringing the quest for truth to the big screen. Special credit must also be given to the ensemble cast for their performances. This film is definitely one of the Oscars’ most engaging Best Picture decisions.