Editor's note: the following is a review from the Toronto Film Festival, where the film premiered in September.
My biggest fear going into Spotlight, the historical drama which reenacts the Boston Globe’s exposé of clergy sex abuse in the Roman Catholic Church, was that auteur Tom McCarthy would find some way—probably through lionizing the journalists—to recast this horrific chapter of our history into a feel-good story. In America, we don’t mind movies that ask us to pity victims. But we sure seem to hate anyone or anything that asks us to not feel quite so good about ourselves.
I had nothing to worry about.
If anything, Walter Robinson’s (Michael Keaton) biggest epiphany is a bit of a Schindler moment: Why didn’t I do more? As Robinson and his team of investigative reporters act as our surrogates, they don’t lead us into the temptation of self-righteous hindsight, nor do they deliver us from realizing that we’re complicit in our silence. Spotlight is a serious film, both artistically and morally, and it wrestles with explosive content while never feeling exploitative or self-aggrandizing.
The story begins when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over the Globe. It is 2002, and newspapers are already feeling the effects of the Internet. In one pointed establishing shot, we get a billboard for AOL that reminds us of just how much our communication methods can change in a decade.
Robinson worries, not without cause, that his team’s investigative model—picking their own stories, doing research for a year or longer, supporting four full-time salaries—will soon be unsustainable. Yet when Baron asks him to see if there is any fire behind the smoke surrounding the case of a pedophile priest, Robinson is reluctant. This is Boston. “Thou Shalt Not Embarrass the Roman Catholic Church” is both an eleventh commandment and a survival mantra.
Reluctantly, the team starts digging. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) camps in the office of lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who is representing scores of victims in multiple lawsuits. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) talks to a victim from a support group, and she knocks on doors looking for others. She finds one priest who admits “fooling around” with several kids, but insists he is without remorse, because he took no pleasure in it. Robinson chips away at his friend Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), trying to get confirmation from someone who had a hand in prosecutions of how extensive the scandal might be.
Spotlight most resembles All the President’s Men. Both films present journalism not as an exotic movie profession but as a sometimes tedious, usually inefficient means of groping after the truth. Investigations consist of knocking on doors, poring through archives, sitting in offices, and generally trying to get other people to confirm what the reporters already think they know but can’t yet prove.