Dir. Tom McCarthy. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams
With about half an hour left in Spotlight – one of those two hour movies which is punctual about its length – Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo) is on Sacha Pfeiffer’s (McAdams) porch, calmer than he was a few minutes ago but still blindingly angry. He has obtained a damning set of letters addressed to Cardinal Law from faithful parishioners with concerns about priests who have molested loved ones. Pfeiffer, who used to attend church with her grandmother, has stopped because going to Mass makes her angry. Ruffalo fires off a brilliant line, one of the very few good lines in Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer’s C+ script. Maybe it’s Ruffalo, who is convincingly manic but not convincingly angry outside of this one moment where he explains to his colleague why this story affects him so much.
The weird thing is, I think…I – I think I figured I would actually go back. I was holding on to that.
Spotlight is a movie that touches several themes with a New Critic’s deftness : the fallibility of the free press, institutional respect breeds deference breeds corruption, the way that silence breeds self-loathing in survivors. At the root of those major ideas spinning around is Rezendes’ bitter admission. The Spotlight team – Robby Robinson (the rehabbing Keaton), Pfeiffer, Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James, who escaped from Broadway), and Rezendes – is made up of self-described “lapsed Catholics.” With the possible exception of Carroll, who goes to Presbyterian services but makes it sound like it’s his wife’s idea, there isn’t a religious one in the bunch. The word “lapsed” is bandied about a fair bit, which in itself implies that absence from Mass, or from Catholicism generally, won’t last forever. No one refers to him- or herself as a “lapsed” Catholic after Rezendes looks over the balcony, looks back at Pfeiffer, and admits that he thought he’d go back to Mass someday. Typically, the film makes statements about how the Catholic Church has wound people around its fingers; cronies pop up to dissuade Robby from publishing his story, or lawyers get in the way of the investigation. But here, it’s the closest the movie comes to saying outright that the hold the Catholic church has on Eric MacLeish or Jim Sullivan or Pfeiffer’s grandmother or even Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) isn’t necessarily wicked. There’s something about Catholicism that has dug its claws into Rezendes, but it’s benign, like a scar from an old forgotten hurt. For Rezendes, who has already questioned how one can be a Catholic without going to Mass, who has sat through multiple interviews in which people compare the appearance of a priest to the appearance of God himself, to say that he can’t see himself returning to church ever again is the most interesting renunciation of God in a film since F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri put a crucifix in the fire. And when Rezendes returns to church and stands in the back, watching children sing the suddenly creepy “Silent Night,” that doesn’t feel like a triumph. He looks ill. One wonders what insight Rezendes could have taken from returning to church with his deadline bearing down.
Spotlight is a down to earth film. Its actions progress chronologically, with fairly straightforward camera action, occasionally indulging in the Sorkin walk-and-talk at a canter rather than a gallop, but often as not using the Spotlight office or the newsroom or some other generic setting as a background; the most unusual piece of camerawork in the film follows Carroll from behind as he speedwalks from his house to the house of a priest in the neighborhood, a man he has deduced to be a sex offender. He has kids; the house appears on the fridge with a note not to go near it. For yet another Oscarbait movie set in Boston, which hasn’t signified American this frequently in the popular imagination since 1775, it’s appropriate that the American shot is far and away the most common look the camera gives the viewer, allowing us to settle into a universe of heads, necks, and torsos. All of this is to say that Spotlight doesn’t seem like a movie that would indulge in conversations about God, or about how people interact with God, and yet there is a furrow in the film that holds that decidedly unnatural perspective. It seems like a movie which exists to draw comparisons with All the President’s Men, which I’m not sure, when considered in context, is an entirely fair comparison.
All the President’s Men, like The China Syndrome, is a product of that optimistic mindset about the power of journalism to redress grievances and to topple the powerful; All the President’s Men ends with a rush of leads declaring the downfall of Nixon’s cabinet and finally the man himself. Spotlight ends by saying that Cardinal Law, who oversaw a decades-long cover-up of priests guilty of absolutely stunning crimes, got a promotion from Pope John Paul II, and that major work uncovering rape scandals involving priests has been done in scores of cities across the United States and worldwide. All the President’s Men sits around in the Washington Post’s then-modern newsroom; Spotlight takes place in a very similar looking newsroom, just twenty-five years on. Jason Robards’ Ben Bradlee doesn’t sit around worrying about circulation; Slattery’s Bradlee, Jr. is acutely aware of the fact that Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, sneakily doing the film’s best acting work behind that scragglebeard) has come to the editor’s position at the Boston Globe, in no small part, to improve sales. All the President’s Men looks around at contemporary Washington and doesn’t try to make Woodward and Bernstein historic. Spotlight has an establishing shot with a massive AOL billboard before cutting to footage of the World Trade Center on fire. (I wasn’t familiar at all with the Boston Globe coverage of the scandal before viewing; seeing that the film started in 2001 put me on edge waiting to see how 9/11 would affect the events. It’s incredible how even fifteen years later, just seeing the year on-screen immediately brings 9/11 to mind.) Maybe most importantly, Watergate still inspired some level of reverence in 1976 moviegoers. I am amazed that, with very few missteps, Spotlight manages to create deep sympathy for survivors after we spent most of the early 2000s nervously tittering to jokes about priests raping little boys for lack of our willingness to take the situation seriously.
The tone of the two films could hardly be more different. All the President’s Men is near to self-congratulatory with its joy, too near to the events to really gain perspective. Spotlight, by waiting a decade and a half, recognizes the coverage of this scandal as one of the last meaningful moments of print journalism. It’s a period piece. The “2000s period piece” is a weird genre to even think about right now, but Spotlight – while five years behind The Social Network, which still holds its pole position – remains one of the few major/good films to soak up the previous decade and spit it out into a film. It looks like the 2000s, if it never got sunny back then; movies have the darndest tendencies to light Boston for drama and turn it into Seattle by accident. But the cars are right, and the clothing is right, and the hair is right, and the computers – they aren’t perfect, but they’re close enough at first glance. Carroll mentions that there will be a URL at the bottom of the article when it’s released in the paper; James delivers that line beautifully, touching it with the right balance of “a URL! in the newspaper!” and “this is technology we’re familiar with and know how to use, but it’s still wild that it’s in the Boston Globe.”
I’m not sure Spotlight is a great movie, but it’s deeply competent. It understands that movies about journalists uncovering big stories – especially when we know how those stories will turn out – make for gripping drama, even though Spotlight, like Robby when he starts to see his case compiled, is not in any particular hurry. It gives Keaton plenty of room to be contemplative and commanding, Ruffalo his space to be frenetic and impassioned, and McAdams hers to be empathetic and thorough. Liev Schreiber’s Baron, out of the entire cast, symbolizes the movie’s pace; what looks plodding and low-key is in fact deceptively quick and playing out a step ahead of where you expect it to go.