Note: I do my best to keep this review as spoiler free as possible.
I went into my viewing of the film Spotlight expecting my big takeaway to be related to faith. It’s a film about the massive clergy abuse scandal in the Catholic church, after all. And certainly, it was a sobering reminder of the toll abuse takes on the vulnerable, particularly when it is perpetrated by those who represent God (something also explored in one of my favorite recent films, Calvary). But instead, perhaps my biggest takeaway was the way the film focuses our attention on the importance of depth in our journalism today.
As newspapers lose more and more subscribers these days, pressure is on them to produce stories that will inflame the passions of their readers. Getting a rise out of readers means more clicks on website stories. More clicks mean more advertising dollars. All this leads to the rise of quick, fast food journalism; before somebody else gets to the story, get it out there, even if you stand a chance to get the facts wrong or to miss a vital component in your reporting. All this also has led to the rise of entertainment posing as journalism and a focus on giving the news consumer what they want instead of what they need.
I’ve written in the past about the ugly side of journalism as portrayed in the chilling 2014 film Nightcrawler, a film that cautions us on our complicity in the problems with the news these days: we run toward the sensational, thus creating a greater demand for the kind of exploitative, underhanded tricks played by Jake Gylenhaal’s character in that film, Louis Bloom.
Spotlight gives us the other side of the coin. This film (named for an in-depth, investigative journalism team at The Boston Globe) takes place in the era just before 9/11 and just after. It’s about those persistent, courageous journalists who just keep doing their job, despite the pressures to do less. It’s about people who are willing to do hard work, long-term work, work that isn’t glamorous, in pursuit of an important story. It’s about journalists who choose to deepen their story and make sure it says all it needs to say–even when that takes more time–before they publish it. It’s a celebration of slow journalism. It’s a celebration of justice and truth. But the film–like the journalists it portrays–does its work simply and quietly. There is no showy camerawork here. There are no groundbreaking performances or incredible physical transformations (unless you count the rumpled pantsuits worn by Rachel McAdams). There’s no showboating or artsy-fartsy stuff (yes, that is a professional film term). There are just solid performances, a strong story, and a very good script. There’s good, basic storytelling here. And it really works.
The film opens as Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) becomes the new editor of The Boston Globe. An outsider from Boston the city as well as from the power structures of the Catholic Church there (he is Jewish), Baron is able to maintain an objectivity that many born and bred in the systems they cover cannot. In fact, when Cardinal Law tries to manipulate him into a relationship of “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours,” Baron respectfully explains that he believes journalism is best done when it is most objective and most independent of other institutions. His calm demeanor and principled action throughout the film shows the best of what an editor can be: willing to shield and support his reporters through covering a difficult story, unconcerned about the whims of subscribers, and laser focused on journalism’s irreplaceable role and function in society: to hold institutions accountable and to seek the truth. (Baron, by the way, is now the Executive Editor of The Washington Post, arguably the best newspaper in America and the one I trust most to be fair and to seek the truth without partiality.)
Among other duties, Baron supervises the four-person, eminent, hardworking investigative team known as “Spotlight.” Spotlight is led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and includes reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). The team begins to investigate the Catholic priest abuse scandal in Boston and is shocked to discover how many priests and brothers are involved and how high up in the hierarchical system of the Catholic church the cover-up goes.