I like the moment when the journalists are on their last nerve. The scene arrives toward the end of Spotlight, and it’s a moving one in an investigative film so nail-biting. These writers, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), employees of The Boston Globe, have been tirelessly probing, for the past year or so, cases of sex abuse in the Catholic church by priests, a scandal which, as it turns out, does not just consist of a handful of instances but an abominable reach stretching continents.
The two, part of a larger staff of journalistic detectives known as the Spotlight Team, are close to making their breakthrough — they have uncovered thousands of cases spanning several decades — but a hitch, known to many as 9/11, interrupts the process. Audiences don’t want to read about religiously guarded crime soon after a devastating terrorist attack. And so the story is put off for months, with worries that entail that maybe another newspaper will discover the foul play for themselves, that maybe the scandal will never be published, that maybe abuse will go on with no one aware of what’s actually happening.
This deeply disturbs Michael, not just on a professional level but also on a personal one. In frustration, the sequence finds him arriving at Sacha’s doorstep on a cold, winter night, ready to talk to someone in a way not necessarily occupationally related. He is shaken, depressed even, by the fact that religion is never something that will not be tainted to him ever again. He always figured that, if times got rough, he would always be able to turn back to his Catholic upbringing for answers. Not anymore — things are too complicated, too repulsive.
It’s moments like these that make Spotlight so personal; when headlines finally did come out, exclaiming what seemed to be the impossible, it turned the world upside down. Here, we see a man so closely connected to the case that his blood may as well be on the pages. The fact that even he, a professional determined to allow an important story to see the light of day, left the investigation a changed person, a more cynical one, proves just what a valuable vocation journalism is, how much we underrate the people who put their own interests on the line day in and day out in hopes to stand for what’s right.
Spotlight is one of the finest journalism films ever made, next to All the President’s Men and Good Night, And Good Luck. Compelling in the most thunderous of ways, it is burdened by, and succeeds in consideration to, the difficult task of being entertaining, by the book, and humane. It has a story consuming enough to grab our attention for a century — but what takes it to electric heights is just how far it takes its human level tweaks, taking the time to establish its characters as real people, not untouchable everyday superheroes, and how it avoids sensationalism, making its frequent jaw-dropping pieces of evidence stop by not with the opera of a Hollywood plot twist but with a realistic damnation. McCarthy’s direction and screenplay (co-written with Josh Singer), so highly attentive and so patient, make us feel as though we’re living through the case just as Spotlight did over a decade ago. It’s movies like this one that make me excited to go to the movies in the first place — having an experience, not merely going through the throes of escapism, is a celluloid-derived feeling unlike any other.
In a film as subtle as Spotlight, it’s easy to forget that the top-notch cast is performing. So painlessly natural are they that journalism seems like their calling in life, not acting. Michael Keaton, in his follow-up to the audacious Birdman, is excellent as an editor forced to tone investigative zest down for the sake of keeping ethics in check; Ruffalo, uniformly impressive, becomes Rezendes whole-heartedly, echoing his bear-like qualities with effortless determination. McAdams furthers her status as one of film’s most dependable actresses; Liev Schreiber, perhaps the definition of understated here, is the film’s backbone as the guiding light of the case.
Come Oscar time, Spotlight, without a doubt, will be a contender for several major categories. Films as sharply drawn as this one are rare, and I can only be thankful that an All the President’s Men of the digital age is able to stop by without causing us to remember that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 is playing next door. A-