Getting the truth – the old-fashioned way

Journalism drama "Spotlight" keeps both plot and characters grounded in its disturbing reality.

Sean Flamand, Movie Reviewer

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Phil Saviano (Neal Huff) sits on one side of an office, clutching a cardboard box in his lap. He’s the only one in the room who’s not part of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of investigative journalists.

While the newspaper has reported on Saviano previously, other reporters have given the impression that they don’t put much stock in him as a source. But these four journalists are different. They’re methodical, they’re patient, and – most importantly – they’re listening.

Saviano tells his story of abuse at the hands of a Catholic priest, a slow descent from innocuous favors like collecting hymnals and taking out the trash – to sinister and abusive ones that we don’t want to imagine but are told anyway, as the film lays it out for us that the priest asked an 11-year-old Saviano to perform oral sex on him.

“How do you say no to God, right?” asks Saviano with tragic irony.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” (2015) recounts how The Boston Globe exposed the rampant sexual abuse among priests in the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a fact-based story, and this reality didn’t need any embellishment to be both compelling and deeply disturbing.

The power of “Spotlight” is embedded in words – conversations like the above with Saviano; the legalese and loopholes of getting all the information; and how something as innocent as “sick leave” became sinister.

We never see any of the abuse firsthand, of course. Instead, we see exactly what these reporters saw – tortured and mentally scarred victims, wringing their hands and struggling through stories no one should have to tell.

Any outsider hearing these stories is led to wonder: “Why is nothing being done about this?” Indeed, as “Spotlight” points out, it took an outsider in new, Jewish (and thus outside of the church) editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) for anyone to get curious enough to investigate.

Baron puts Spotlight on the case, a part of The Boston Globe that specializes in truly in-depth reporting – sometimes putting out only one or two stories in a year, as the team’s head Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) explains in one scene.

Outside of the conversations, the most action-packed sequences of “Spotlight” aren’t action-packed at all. They’re scenes of combing through dusty directories in dimly lit storerooms, hunting for names that will lead to more perpetrators entangled in the scandal.

Somehow, though, McCarthy makes the down-to-earth representation of true investigative journalism gripping, and the film becomes something of an elegy for this brand of journalism in that respect.

It could be contested that “Spotlight” doesn’t pay enough attention to its core characters. We’re introduced to Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), but aside from Ruffalo, none of the actors really stand out.

We only see characters’ personal lives in snippets, and always in relation to the story. Pfeiffer struggles to figure out how she’ll tell her devout Catholic grandmother about the story she’s working on; Carroll discovers a horrifying truth about the whereabouts of one of these priests.

But this lack of characterization is a big part of the point. “Spotlight” is not making lionized heroes of these journalists, though the audience can see that they are regardless.

No, the real story of “Spotlight” is the story itself – a Pulitzer Prize-winning article that shook a city to its core, shedding stark detail on a nightmare implicating 87 priests in the Boston area alone, including then-Archbishop of Boston Cardinal Law.

It’s especially hard to see what “Spotlight” does wrong at the nuts and bolts level, since it does so many things exactly right. Howard Shore’s subdued, piano-heavy score, for example, reflects the somber nature of the story, even if it doesn’t take any real risks.

Then there’s the pervasiveness of Catholic symbolism in every scene, an excellent move in shot composition. A massive church looms in the background as a Spotlight reporter interviews a victim on his porch. A victim’s mother fingers the cross at her neck as she explains why her family didn’t seek retribution sooner.

Its writing is evenly paced and believable, with the all-important dialogue moving the story forward with each revelation and development.

“Spotlight” is, unsurprisingly, not a feel-good film. I’d even go so far as to say it was as hard to watch as the grisly “The Revenant,” if not harder at times due to its sheer emotional weight.

But it’s a film that needs to be watched, regardless. While the Globe article was published more than 10 years ago, the film reminds us why we need investigative journalism to keep the most powerful institutions and authorities in check.

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