When referring to movies, the words “Based on true events” often don’t carry much weight. All too regularly, films labeled as true stories are littered with clichés or dramatic moments that could not possibly have happened in reality. With this in mind, Spotlight is a breath of fresh air — an engrossing story that doesn’t resort to overused narrative tricks and, therefore, feels one hundred percent real.
The film’s title refers to The Boston Globe division that investigated the widespread molestation of children by Catholic priests in Boston and the subsequent cover-up by the archdiocese. As The Globe’s reporters methodically uncover details of the scandal, we don’t see violent threats from parties opposing the newspaper or a writer emphatically throwing a chair in an outburst of frustration. We get a depiction of how the journalistic process actually plays out. In one scene, reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), tells a victim of sexual abuse, “We’re going to tell this story, and we’re going to tell it right.” Spotlight tells its story right.
Like a piece of journalism, the movie presents the facts clearly without a moment wasted on melodrama — it is extremely efficient filmmaking. Visually, director Tom McCarthy doesn’t spend any effort trying to be artistic; he simply shows us what we need to see.
The script is concise, as each scene moves the plot and adds suspense. While film’s streamlined storytelling may prevent it from deeply exploring all of the issues it raises, it does touch on them subtly and effectively. When Pfeiffer mentions that her grandmother is a devout Catholic who attends church every Sunday, we really get a sense for how the story being investigated will affect people’s lives. These peripheral plotlines are given enough screentime to float around in our minds but not so much as to distract us from the larger story.
What cements the film’s authentic feel is the way the actors create believable characters. Mark Ruffalo’s performance is worthy of an Oscar nomination, truly embodying the twitchy, anxious reporter Mike Rezendes, who gradually becomes more emotionally invested in Spotlight’s investigation. Rezendes loses his temper during a powerful scene at The Globe’s headquarters, but Ruffalo expertly avoids overacting in a moment where Nicolas Cage, for example, might have punched a hole in a wall. Michael Keaton is equally convincing as Walter Robinson, the team’s leader who is simultaneously juggling his desire to report on the scandal accurately, his allegiance to the Church as a Catholic, orders from his superiors, and The Globe’s failure to discover the story earlier. Despite maintaining composure throughout, Keaton still manages to hint that his character is internally conflicted.
The smaller parts are also cast impeccably, with Liev Schreiber’s understated turn as The Globe’s newly appointed Editor-in-Chief Marty Baron being the most memorable performance. Having just moved to Boston and taken over as editor, Baron is seen as a newcomer still learning the ropes, yet we are immediately struck with the sense that he is a wise man who knows his stuff. Schreiber creates a character who is both confident and soft-spoken, as well as oddly charming at the same time.
The roles of the victims of child abuse interviewed by The Globe are superbly acted, and integral to the film’s success. The emotion with which they tell their traumatic stories makes us feel for them and keeps us invested in what Spotlight is trying to accomplish. We are reminded that these reporters are doing more than just reporting; they’re helping people who have been silent for years share their stories.
Spotlight honors investigative reporting by giving a realistic depiction of the way a newspaper operates without resorting to stereotypes like the “obnoxiously pushy young female reporter” (whereas House of Cards has featured three such characters in each of its three seasons). It’s somewhat rare in film and television that journalists are portrayed as more than hard-working machines who will do anything, however unethical, just to get a story. Spotlight depicts well-defined characters who deal with real-life logistical problems, personal conflicts, and difficult decisions about when to publish a story and how to tell it.
The film is also an ode to journalism by emulating it stylistically. It’s only marginally more artistically daring than my fifth grade final history project, but it sure is one tight, focused, well-executed movie that makes a mundane topic thrilling. Spotlight takes a group of middle-aged reporters either conducting interviews or sitting around a table and treats us to a gripping story and one of the best movies of 2015.
Lev Akabas is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.