Boston may be a major American city, but as described in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight, it’s still a small town at heart. With a populace that skews nearly 50 percent Catholic, the conventions of this metaphorical village are organized under the jurisdiction of the church, which provides the clearest point of connection for immigrants old and new. Such insularity fosters tight-knit communities and deep ancestral roots, but it has its downsides, specifically regarding the exclusion of outsiders, as one Armenian character notes to another of Portuguese extraction. Even more insidiously, this environment encourages a private approach to community housekeeping, assuring that problems will be handled internally, and secrets will remain underground.
Based on the events leading up to the 2001 sex abuse scandal that rocked the Roman Catholic Church, Spotlight patiently charts the gradual development from rumors and whispers to a full-blown revelation of years of astonishing exploitation. As the film imagines, it’s the singular character of the town, particularly its reliance on the moral authority of religious officials, that allowed dozens of pedophiles to remain at work, with the diocese shuffling them around the city once their crimes came to light, lying to parishioners, and offering scads of hush money. The task of revealing this rotten system falls to The Boston Globe, itself already in crisis, what with the arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) as executive editor, appearing to herald greater control by the paper’s parent corporation with a salvo of buyouts and layoffs.
A Jewish transplant from Florida, backed by the big-city pedigree of The New York Times, Baron is a classic interloper, a singularly focused workaholic unburdened by the constraints of social niceties, who doesn’t play golf or know the catechism. This makes him the perfect person to spearhead the exposé, which seems to strike at the heart of everything the city holds dear.
His motives are contrasted against the more sensitive demands of Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), whose award-winning Spotlight team, charged with the production of lengthy investigative pieces, handles the burden of the journalistic work. A native son with a strong local pedigree, Robinson has to weigh the needs of his community against the ethical demands of a journalist, while making similar decisions for his reporters, namely the dangerously obsessive Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and the blandly proficient Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), each of whom seems poised to suffer serious emotional damage from the production and fallout of the articles.
Spotlight entertains such weighty concerns while also spinning a masterfully paced potboiler. A familiar tale of scrappy underdogs taking on a secretive institution, it complicates that dynamic by having its protagonists operating under the auspices of a monolithic corporation, which many Bostonites are concerned intends to strip away the distinctiveness of their hometown paper, all while nosily digging into local matters and airing dirty laundry.
This is a complex film about moving past clannish parochial designations, one which ends up assigning the burden of guilt upon an entire populace for looking the other way, none of them quite aware of the scale of the problem they were avoiding. In tackling this mass culpability, the film also confronts the degradation of individuality which also occurs as communities stretch past their traditional limits and out into the ethereal fabric of the internet, as city papers become assets of global conglomerates, and local flavor turns into a surface characteristic rather than an essential quality of a place.
But the biggest downside to this approach is that, burdened with the telling of this expansive story, the film devotes too much time delivering information to establish a convincing visual foundation for its account, aside from a few ominous shots of church structures literally looming over everything. Full of reserved tracking shots and walk-and-talk exposition dumps, Spotlight seems submissively constructed around the contours of its voluminous dialogue, a feat of informational cinema that’s equally thrilling and overwhelming.
McCarthy has yet to emerge as a director with any noticeable style. With Spotlight, he pulls off his biggest and most consistently conceived production yet, but the lack of a personal imprint leaves the film feeling a bit too much like a modern companion to All the President’s Men, though one that doesn’t match that film’s sharp stylistic sense or its aura of era-defining importance. Achieving the latter would be a tall task, but Pakula’s classic managed to match its timely narrative with an equally virtuosic lens for telling its story. By modeling its structure so closely after the format of its predecessor, Spotlight only draws closer attention to its lack of scope and ambition.
For a film so concerned with portraying the special character of a city, its unique workings, rites, and rituals, Spotlight never conveys much local color beyond some respectably rendered accents, and a specifically intense level of Catholic influence, what with the church inextricably ingrained in the very fabric of the town. In this atmosphere, the individual characters, specifically the reporters embroiled in the investigation, feel less like fully conceived humans than personifications of different narrative concerns, each tasked with a specific type of reaction to the mounting chain of shocking disclosures.
In a final postscript that plays like a bit of caustic black humor, the film lists off a compilation of communities that experienced their own molestation scandals in the wake of Boston’s reckoning, information which occupies several title cards and encompasses untold thousands of horrible incidents. This one city, as it turns out, wasn’t so unique after all.