There’s a moment in Tom McCarthy’s latest film Spotlight when Boston Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) crosses out a word from a manuscript about the systemic cover-up of child molestation by priests in the Catholic Church that his crack investigative journalists have been laboring on for months. One of the reporters asks Baron what he’s deleting. “Another adjective,” Baron sighs. He could almost be describing the aesthetic of Spotlight, a movie that strips away almost all of the poetry of cinema for the prosaic exposition of a newspaper article—a gripping newspaper article, but a newspaper article nonetheless.
Recounting the investigative leg work that went into the Boston Globe’s groundbreaking 2002 expose of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church, Spotlight is as much a paean to the institution of journalism as it is about the wrongdoings of the Church. As McCarthy has said in interviews, it takes an institution to take on an institution. The Spotlight Team, financially supported by the Boston Globe to do in-depth investigations that can take up to a year to complete, are anathema to the 24/7 news cycle that, too often, driven by the constant need for content, relies on “amateur journalists” and ideologues while sprinting past the need for fact-checking.
The Spotlight Team, on the other hand, beats the pavement, knocking on doors (and getting doors slammed in their faces), making difficult phone calls, waiting outside elevators and offices to ambush those who are trying to cold shoulder them or to be the first person to submit the appropriate forms for access to important court documents, poring over old newspaper clippings and church listings, scrolling through microfiche, even, heaven forbid, sitting in a library until closing time. Worse, the Catholic Church strives to thwart their research, doing everything in its power to hide any and all incriminating evidence. McCarthy’s film persuasively demonstrates that without the institutional weight of the Globe, the Church would have succeeded in keeping its secrets hidden. “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” professes lawyer Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) at one point in Spotlight. The film rejoins, “And it takes a team of highly trained professionals to save one.”
Watching a journalist curse when he discovers that a court’s copy center is closed or a group of reporters huddle in a basement to read the employment statuses of priests may hardly seem like the stuff of high drama, but McCarthy understands the pleasure of finding evidence, connecting the dots, and stumbling on the awful truth, constructing what is essentially a police procedural with reporters instead of cops—a newspaper procedural. The audience already knows where the story is headed, but it doesn’t know how it got there and finding out is fascinating. It is a narrative structure that goes back to the beginnings of Western drama with Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex and drives the success of such television franchises as CSI and SVU.
But in making his movie a procedural, McCarthy shears it of unruly life. Boston is a city rich with local color, which is mentioned in the film and can be seen in the neighborhoods the reporters visit to conduct their research, but beyond the architecture—and the looming presence of the Church throughout Boston, no matter the neighborhood—there isn’t a lot of that color to be experienced. For example, one senses a missed opportunity when Garabedian asks reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) where he’s from. After Rezendes replies, “East Boston,” Garabedian cocks his head warily and says, “You don’t sound like you’re from East Boston.” Rezendes doesn’t seem to know what to make of the remark any more than the rest of us do and so responds by shrugging, which is how the movie treats not only East Boston but pretty much the rest of Boston and the people who reside there, too.
That’s too bad. The cast is strong. One imagines what the actors might have done had McCarthy given them characters with a richness of detail closer to the ones who people his quirky comedies rather than reduce them to generic reporters who look dour or tear up when they learn a new fact about the Church’s malfeasance. On occasion, we catch glimpses of something more finely observed, as in the scene where reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) finds, in a dank storage room reeking from the dead rat in the corner, the Catholic directories that suggest the depth of the problem the team will encounter. With everyone crowding around the books in the excitement of discovery, editor Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), unable to read the print in the dim light, asks why there aren’t more lights on, forcing Carroll to admit that he didn’t know how to turn them on. It’s an odd detail, but the kind drawn from everyday life, where all of us, immersed in important events of the day or not, reside.
There is no reason that a film recounting a story so rooted in human nature needs to sacrifice its humanity. Nor does it follow that visual sophistication need be sacrificed in service of a televisual realism. There is no doubt that the story told here is compelling, but one feels that in focusing so much on data being compiled and analyzed to solve the difficult puzzle of how to nail the Church for its crimes, what the data is all about, people, has been reduced in the telling, hidden in plain sight.