Oscar Week | Tuesday Blog | ‘Spotlight’ joins ‘All the President’s Men’ in the pantheon of great journalism movies
“Spotlight” tells the true story of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation team that uncovered the Boston Archdiocese’s cover up of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church (Open Road Films)
In 2002, the Boston Globe published an explosive series of articles about the decades-long scandal of child sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, involving 70 local priests, more than 1,000 victims and the collusion of Cardinal Bernard Law in covering up the crimes. As a piece of journalism, it was a barnburner, one that garnered the paper a Pulitzer Prize the following year for its airing of truths long suppressed within the Catholic hierarchy.
Named for the team that reported and wrote the Globe stories, the movie “Spotlight” chronicles the shoe-leather investigation conducted over several months prior to publication. But before we get to the review, a few disclosures are in order: For one, the film’s chief protagonist, Globe editor Marty Baron, is now executive editor of The Washington Post.
For another — and perhaps even more important — the film depicts a profession this reviewer has pursued for 30 years and held in near-worshipful esteem for far longer. For journalists, watching “Spotlight’s” meticulous portrayal of their vocation is a surpassingly gratifying experience, one that former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, at the film’s local premiere in September, only half-facetiously compared to watching porn.
With “Spotlight,” director Tom McCarthy has fulfilled his first duty, which is to create a world that is utterly, convincingly immersive, down to the last granular detail. After a brief prologue set in the 1970s, the film opens in 2001 with a “caking,” an all-too-familiar newsroom ritual whereby departing staffers are celebrated with a heavily frosted sheet cake and some colorful war stories. Having nailed that scene — and its attendant whiff of economic insecurity — with anthropological care, McCarthy proceeds to get everything else uncannily right, from the overstarched shirts and pleated khakis worn by the Globe’s male reporters to the drudgery of looking up old clips and cranking microfilm. It’s not a stretch to suggest that “Spotlight” is the finest newspaper movie of its era, joining “Citizen Kane” and “All the President’s Men” in the pantheon of classics of the genre.
In its precision, modesty and restraint, “Spotlight” even does its most famous predecessors one better. McCarthy and his fellow screenwriter, Josh Singer, did their own reporting to create the film’s script, revisiting the reporters’ methods and even breaking a crucial piece of news of their own, revealing that the Globe missed a chance to advance the abuse story as far back as 1993. If “Citizen Kane” was a monumental narrative of operatic scope and visual ambition, and “All the President’s Men” a tautly paranoid thriller attuned to the dawning cynicism of its time, “Spotlight” has achieved something far more difficult, marshalling a pure, unadorned style in the service of a story that rejects mythologizing in favor of disciplined, level-eyed candor.
Consistent with that pared-down ethos, McCarthy has made “Spotlight” an ensemble piece rather than a showy star vehicle. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James virtually disappear into their roles as the members of the Spotlight team: editor Walter Robinson, reporters Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer, and data researcher Matt Carroll. For his part, Liev Schreiber delivers a crafty, masterfully understated portrayal of Baron, who assigns the abuse story the very first day he arrives at the paper as its new, slightly enigmatic editor. It’s Baron’s status as an outsider — as one character puts it, “an unmarried man of the Jewish faith who hates baseball” — that gives him the distance necessary to ask uncomfortable questions of an institution with which the Globe historically had a cozy relationship.
A solitary, soft-spoken, ultimately poignant figure, Baron is the closest thing “Spotlight” has to a hero, no more so than when he resists the temptation to run with a particularly juicy piece of information, preferring to keep the team’s focus on the system rather than on one individual. If “Truth,” which dramatizes the disastrous “60 Minutes II” episode investigating George W. Bush’s National Guard service, is a cautionary tale about rushing a story, “Spotlight” is its antidote. Fully embracing the hiccups and bureaucratic roundabouts that reporters hit on a regular basis, McCarthy and Singer have created an improbably gripping account of how the best journalism can often entail sitting on a story rather than going to press.
Restraint isn’t just one of the subjects of “Spotlight.” It defines the film’s aesthetic as well. Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi has created a subtle, slightly washed-out palette for “Spotlight.” In defiance of the close-up-centric grammar of most mainstream movies, the filmmakers insist on pulling the camera back, letting the actors play off each other in the newsroom and its cluttered, nondescript offices. An actor himself — he played a reporter in Simon’s HBO series “The Wire” — McCarthy has evinced a knack for casting in previous films he’s directed, including “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win.” His instincts are similarly on point in “Spotlight,” which co-stars Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as victims’ attorneys. Some of the film’s most searing scenes are delivered by a group of little-known supporting players, including Jimmy LeBlanc, Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton as abuse survivors, and Eileen Padua as Pfeiffer’s devout grandmother.
Like the reporting at its center, “Spotlight” derives its power from the steady accumulation of moments that gain momentum and meaning as they accrue.
For all of its modesty and dedication to process, “Spotlight” winds up being a startlingly emotional experience, and not just for filmgoers with intimate knowledge of the culture it depicts . The look and tone of “Spotlight” may initially feel like an affectionate throwback to the stripped-down aesthetic of the 1970s, but there’s genuine moral force behind McCarthy’s method. His integrity as a filmmaker not only echoes the shared sensibility of the journalists he admires, but it also allows pain, betrayal and sadness to surface organically, without facile manipulation. The film’s resolute gaze invites viewers to share McCarthy’s high regard for daily journalism, his alarm at its possible obsolescence and his wariness of tribal loyalties and institutional deference. Most cathartically, though, it gives us space to grieve.
*This article (including the image and links to other related articles) has been reproduced from The Washington Post’s ‘Spotlight’ joins ‘All the President’s Men’ in the pantheon of great journalism movies.
To accept the premise of Court is to submit oneself to the rules of a Kafkaesque society and the cynicism that comes along with it. That you will never reach the conclusion of the bizarre court case that is ongoing here, is a given from the first scene. A Big Brother-like entity descending upon the accused — performing in front of his audience — takes us by the collar and lands us in the extremely painful environment of the court proceedings. The charges are absurd in nature and the proceedings of the court fortify the thought that this labyrinthine tale will never reach its conclusion.
What we are in our public personas, sitting in chairs that signify secular authority, is juxtaposed with the private lives of the three most important individuals who become part of these proceedings after the accusations are levelled against the accused. The humble background of the public prosecutor, the affluence of the defense lawyer and the summer holidays of the sessions court judge clearly seem to point at the malaise that exists in the society. It is difficult to say who the protagonist of this story is. Or probably, it is the story of three individuals criss-crossing each others’ lives for the same court case.
Since childhood we have heard the phrase, “Police aur court-kachehri ke chakkar mein kaun padega?” (who wants to get trapped in the unending loop of the police and a court case?) and it is this chakkar that you get to witness in this film. Not at any point does the film focus on the trials of an individual, nor does it get into the detailed history of the alleged crime committed. The true perpetrator of the crime is probably behind the camera: an all pervasive entity that swoops down every time it decides to play havoc with somebody’s life. The middle class has risen and has become one of the most important growth kernels in India’s history. But the movie dissects and analyses this rise of economic power vis-a-vis a broadening of world views. The judge who ideally should be a truly rational man is given to the temptations of the superstitious kind in his private life. His rationality in private life is dependent on data points of convenience and the authority that belongs to his professional life is subsumed in his private life. He rattles off data about the absurd salaries of MBA professionals with a sense of declaration that if they expect us judges to be more efficient in our professional lives then may be they need to pay us more. That these salaries are not just exorbitant but definitely fictitious, is irrelevant to the judge. He is passing a judgement on the society as a whole without basing it in facts. And he drives his judgement in the direction of his choosing and convenience based on these conjured-up facts.
The two other forces facing off each other are the extremely contrasting personal and professional lives of the public prosecutor and the defense attorney. One coming from the lower rungs of the middle class, traveling in crowded public transport and going home to cook for her family in a small one-room-kitchen — possibly government-allotted house — and the other living in a fancy apartment, traveling to courthouses in his luxury sedan. The distance between the public prosecutor and the accused is lesser than that of the defense lawyer and the defendant. But this lack of distance leads not to empathy but disgust. She wants to desperately move away from the webs of her not-so-luxurious life and the accused represents those rungs she might have navigated herself. She has no sympathy or even empathy for the accused representing the scum of life she has left behind. She would rather that all these people (accused and the like) be put behind the bars and be done with it.
On the other hand, the distance between the defense lawyer and the defendant could not be more. But he comes to his aid in charity. He cries alone in the night when he is attacked and his face is blackened for he is grappling with his choices of defending the poor and defenseless and how he could have taken the easier route of making money in a system that is favourable to those who wish to make millions. His choice of not having married and living alone in his house, drinking himself to sleep are tied to his inability to find people who understand him and could share his mind-space. He goes to pubs with his friends, possibly only joined at the hip for their common denominator of money. He enjoys himself in these situations but longs for a just world that provides for all. In his empathy he stands alone, much like the director, I suspect. In his battle for finding neverland the director understands the fabric of this society so well that he feels hopeless. He is sure of one thing only. That there is no hope.
During the scene when the lights go off in the empty courtroom one by one, we see his hopelessness painted across the canvas of our minds. The sighing camera slowly disappears into the darkness and stays there, making it the uncomfortable truth of the nature of being us. It lets us grapple in the dark of the lack of solution to this system which while created to serve and protect us does not allow us to express our thoughts without repercussions. The world exists beyond the walls of this courtroom, the one where the the principle characters exist. You do not get into the life of the accused/defendant, you only understand the people enmeshed in the web of the justice system. Justice will never be done because judgments are pronounced by human beings, individuals who can not shed their personalities and bring the balance of the constitution into the courtroom they serve. It is probably the courtroom they serve and not the voiceless humans who are brought in to the room repeatedly to be abused and censured. After the accused is exonerated of the crimes he is brought back in for defending against a different set of charges, just as absurd and arbitrary in nature as the first one and the cycle (court-kachehri ka chakkar) of justice persists.