As of this writing Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight — which recounts the story of the Boston Globe‘s “Spotlight” news team uncovering the pedophilia scandal in the Boston diocese of the Catholic Church — is considered to be the front-runner for this year’s Best Picture Oscar. For that matter, most of its cast is being talked about in similar terms, though in the Supporting Actor/Supporting Actress categories, since the film has no central star and is undeniably an ensemble piece. While it’s early days in the Oscar race and much could still happen, Spotlight might just pull it off. I’d actually — at least right now — be good with that. Oscar could certainly do worse, and has proven so time and again. This truly is a very fine film. It works from start to finish without a wrong step.
Spotlight is the fifth film that McCarthy, who has yet to make a bad film (and, yes, I did see his much-maligned, barely-released The Cobbler from last year), has made. This, however, is the first of his movies I can honestly say I loved. He and his co-writer, Josh Singer, have taken potentially exploitative material and treated it in such a way that it manages to outrage without exploiting. They also crafted a screenplay that is never preachy and never lectures. It makes no concessions to obvious comedy relief, yet never feels heavy-handed or glum, because the characters are appealing and human. (There is not an ounce of artifice or glamorization in the entire two hours.) It tends to state rather than shout, and when it does shout — mostly courtesy of reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and “not a people person” lawyer Mitchel Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) — it earns the right to do so. Best of all, it never forgets to be compelling entertainment, which is all the more remarkable with a story where we know — at least in broad strokes — the outcome. In its quiet way, Spotlight is something of a masterpiece.
The key to why the film works lies in the details. The Spotlight team aren’t so much crusading journalists as they are people doing their jobs as investigative reporters. In this instance, the story isn’t even one they at first relish. It’s foisted on them by new managing editor Marty Baron (a quietly authoritative Liev Schreiber) — who is not only a Boston outsider, but a Jew, who is unfamiliar with the tight-knit Catholic-centric nature of the city and not much impressed by or worried about it. But as is pointed out early on, he can always move on (he has before), while the Spotlight team and publisher Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) are tied to Boston and the Globe.
A story that takes on the Catholic Church and the powerful Cardinal Law (Len Carious) — no matter how carefully it’s couched in distancing terms — is dynamite, and Spotlight head Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) knows it. Plus, he and his staff — Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — are all lapsed or nonpracticing Catholics. It’s never specifically stated, but it’s clear that tackling not just the question of pedophile priests, but the very institution that helps to enable them (the bigger issue that destroys the assumption of “a few bad apples”) threatens their own faith, however shaky it already may be. But it’s a reasonable topic to investigate and the more they uncover, the more they are themselves drawn into it and shocked by what they find. This is also what makes the film compelling for the viewer.
There are so many carefully integrated details that it’s impossible — and probably inadvisable — to catalog them here. None of them feel false or manufactured. Some of them — like the paper’s own culpability in ignoring earlier evidence — are major, but not blown up. Others — a retired priest (Richard O’Rourke) with a chilling rationalization as to why there was nothing wrong in his having molested children — are so startling that comment is unnecessary and impossible. (If you’ve ever had a conversation with an admitted pedophile, you’ll know the story is all too believable.) This is powerful material that is made more so by the film’s refusal to sensationalize or even editorialize it — all the while never mincing words or glossing anything over. This is also one of the best and most profoundly compelling films of the year. Rated R for some language including sexual references.