As journalism has shifted from print to the web over the past few decades, few vestiges of the former format have been more at risk than investigative journalism. It’s a resource-heavy part of any publication that maintains the form, and with newspapers attempting just to survive, it can be seen as an easy cut for struggling publications. Investigative journalism isn’t dead, though, and Spotlight demonstrates just how valuable the format is to the world. The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team, home to any number of successful investigations over the years, was responsible for uncovering the story of the Catholic church’s decades of covering up sexual abuse. The event is now among the most notable in the church’s 2000+ years of existence, and the impact continues to be global in scale. Rather than focusing on the outcome, though, Spotlight keeps its focus squarely on the hours, days, and months spent investigating the story, while also making sure that no one is left off the hook for their involvement.
As the film opens, Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team –Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – are worried about the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Baron’s hiring has already caught the attention of Boston’s establishment, since he’s both Jewish and not a native Bostonian. Of more importance to the Globe is that Baron comes to them after the staff of his previous paper by 15 percent due to falling revenues. Baron takes notice of a story involving a Catholic priest accused of child molestation, and asks if there’s more to the story that the Globe might not have looked into because of the church’s presence in the city.
As the team begins to investigate, they find more and more victims willing to speak out. Eventually, though, they realize the story is far bigger: it’s about the Archdiocese and Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) creating a system that pressured parents into silence while shipping guilty priests off to new parishes after a few months of therapy – only for the problems to manifest again in the new parishes.
The building of this major news story could certainly provide enough material for an interesting story of its own, but Spotlight does more. It introduces other intriguing ideas, including the ways that faith in God turns into faith in the institutions that should represent Him, and how the Globe may have enabled the scandal by not reporting on it even when damning evidence was landing on their desks for years. The film also points out how it took outsiders to the community – both Baron and lawyer Mitchell Garabedian, who works on behalf of many of the victims suing the church – to bring the story to anyone’s attention.
Wisely, the film doesn’t sensationalize the investigation. Instead, the film shows the team interviewing people, chasing down leads, poring over documents, and making discoveries that shift the focus of their investigation. There’s no attempt to make their work seem glamorous, because it isn’t. The drama comes from letting the events unfold over time, building up impact. Given the subject matter of the investigation and the pace at which it unfolds, though, Spotlight is surprisingly calm. None of the characters are thrown into life-threatening situations, and there’s only one scene that involves a character getting (understandably) upset. It’s a tremendous display of respect to Spotlight’s work.
On a casting level, Spotlight is loaded with the right kind of talent. It’s a dialogue-driven film, and the actors let their performances serve the story and its characters. There aren’t any overloaded theatrics on display here. Instead, the entire ensemble works to show these characters as people. While there aren’t any weak links, Michael Keaton manages to stand out the most. It’s clear early on that Robinson has conflicted feelings about the investigation, and it builds up to an admission just before the story goes to press that feels earned.
Ultimately, Spotlight is a compelling example of both the necessity and potential of investigative journalism. The impact of this story goes beyond Boston, as a series of screens at the end display subsequent cities where abuse was uncovered. The screens go on for longer – and feature more locations – than one might expect. Imagine an alternative where the story wasn’t discovered.