Getting the story right: ‘Spotlight’ is a true love letter to journalism

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A journalistic slow-burn in the vein of “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” sacrifices sweep for realism, and glorification for nuance.
In tackling the Boston Globe’s revelatory reporting on the Catholic priest child molestation scandal, director Tom McCarthy provides an investigation of an entire city, one driven by complex calibrations of sympathy and affection. His is a movie of resolve – of a reporting team, of victims, of bystanders and of perpetrators finally goaded into doing what’s right. What we see are not acts of heroism, or even success. “Spotlight” shows people waking up, often by simply looking one another in the eye.
In many ways, the film feels like a continuation of its director’s work. McCarthy sketches out his characters with striking specificity, observing how they connect, locate new sources of empathy and assert new beliefs and priorities through the magic of interaction. There’s always a rhythm to it, too – the pounding drum-playing of “The Visitor,” the chaotic wrestling duets in “Win Win.” In “Spotlight,” it’s the reporting: staff meetings surrounded by piles of clips stuffed in manila folders, door-to-door questionings with neighbors and colleagues, library all-nighters and winless courtroom battles.
The work is gritty, long, indefinite – but McCarthy hones in on the human side of things. An interview between a reporter and a local nearly always comes down to a “How’d you know?” – it could be shared knowledge of a neighborhood, a corner store, a high school teacher, a secret spot by the bay. For victims, there’s comfort in that mutual understanding; for the reporters, there’s horror in the building realization of a citywide epidemic they were too preoccupied – perhaps, too embedded in the system – to notice.
“Spotlight” maintains a close focus on the particulars of the case, a procedural-like structure that serves a thematic purpose and deepens the film’s impact. Its middle stretch is all but consumed by interviews and conversations. Each takes place in a distinct location, and each is leveled with a distinct perspective.
When local reporter Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of the special “Spotlight” investigative team, presses old acquaintances for information on the potential cover-up, he’s either on the golf course or at a club gathering, surrounded by resistant insiders. Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a zanier member of the team, meanwhile probes an Armenian lawyer demanding justice (played superbly by Stanley Tucci) – a self-described “outsider” – and they chat in sparsely populated restaurants, sipping on soup in-between silences. Every character in “Spotlight” feels just right, from the foods they eat to the places they frequent to the homes in which they dwell.
That authenticity is what sets “Spotlight” apart. The film takes its story into the characters’ lives, and into the community’s spirit. The Globe team is strident, patient and incredibly meticulous, but their work is never treated with grandiosity. Rather, the film depicts reporting as the bridge between institutions and residents, from the elite to the public. The Boston Globe is “still very much a local paper,” as one character muses – a citywide chronicle trusted to act in the best interests of those it tells its stories to.
The production is measured. Scenes are stitched together by the great Howard Shore’s (“The Lord of the Rings”) muted piano theme, a tasteful and quietly moving compliment to moments of deep feeling. And the film is rich if, again, subtle in its imagery. Masanobu Takayangani’s evocative photography is detailed and personal, his master shots in the newsroom in particular flowing like a series of historical tableaux.
“Spotlight” builds with cinematic force. A closing montage to “O Holy Night” runs the risk of turning treacly, for instance, before McCarthy smoothly fades into piano, the composition creeping back in with haunting unpredictability. This is a more thorough film than you might expect in that regard. McCarthy, through his masterful command, paints a picture that tells the underlying story: in showing Boston at its best and worst, and in avoiding easy characterizations, he elucidates with harrowing principle how the unthinkable stayed that way for so very long.
McCarthy has described “Spotlight” as his “love letter to journalism.” His Boston feels, above all, lived-in – real. Through every door-knock and drop-by, the place comes to bristling life. The film’s last shot, as artful and vital a frame as any piece of Red Sox memorabilia, features the Spotlight staff back in the office, with the story printed, the phones ringing, the stacks of manila folders no thinner. There’s no glamour, no triumphant swelling of the score – not even a pat on the back.
“Spotlight” merely ends with an acknowledgment of the job. But as such a rich and wise acknowledgment – as one dedicated to the stories of individuals, families and their community, as journalism at its purest should always be – the film makes for one hell of a love letter.

Strong sat.

“Spotlight” is now playing at Regal Hollywood 20 and Lakewood Ranch Cinemas.

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