Paper Trail
By Michael Koresky

Dir. Tom McCarthy, U.S., Open Road Films

Movies about moral crusaders—journalists, lawyers, and third-party whistleblowers—all have a fine line to toe. They are obsessively focused on process, on the work of investigators righteously seeking to uncover some high-profile crime or corruption that the public (we, implicitly) will be better for knowing. At the same time they must convince the viewer that the human beings behind these stories being pursued are of equal importance to those who are, in effect, professionally profiting from their unfortunate circumstances. Such films—including All the President’s Men, Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, and now Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight—need to create an entire, self-sufficient moral universe, in which there is no question that the filmmakers are on the right side of justice, and that this extends to an unquestioned compassion for all involved. This can make these films occasionally tiresome and too even-handed. And as they are often adapted from well-documented and widely known cases, the suspense cannot be based upon trying to figure out what will happen, but how it happens. This is why David Fincher’s Zodiac is such a marvel—it was a investigation with no ending, no preordained outcome, allowing us time to luxuriate in detail. And there is something specifically pure about the newspaper film: as it focuses us so much on minutiae, it becomes about bodies in motion and thoughts in action.

Spotlight, which dramatizes the Boston Globe’s 2001 exposé of the decades of local priests’ child abuse covered up by the city’s archdiocese, is, for a while at least, an admirably pared down entry in the newspaper film genre. Its success reminds us how essential casting is to such movies. There are few American actors I’d like to watch think onscreen more than Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, cast here as, respectively, reporter Mike Rezendes and editor Walter Robinson, both working in the “Spotlight” news section. At times it’s almost like each actor was mistakenly given the other’s role. Ruffalo is nervous and jittery, sporting a careless Caesar haircut, his eyes darting around every room he’s in as though constantly sizing it up for all possible exits—it’s the kind of overly caffeinated performance that used to be Keaton’s stock-in-trade. Keaton, on the other hand, lends the film a wizened gravitas, the rich, deep lines on his face (how refreshing to see a middle-aged actor look middle-aged!) speaking to the kind of collected, seen-it-all professionalism that a man in Robinson’s position would need to be able to effectively oversee the patient, well-researched, and quadruply fact-checked story the film hinges on. Even when their mannerisms feel overdetermined (especially Ruffalo’s), it’s charming and invigorating to watch them bounce off each other, and their presences elevate the actors cast as their reporter teammates, including Rachel McAdams, exuding compassion as intrepid Sacha Pfeiffer, and Brian d’Arcy James, who, as Matt Carroll, proves himself a master at taking off his glasses at dramatically purposeful moments.

Those of us already feeling nostalgic for print, and for whom deep investigative journalism seems like a dying art in an era when crossing t’s and dotting i’s seems to be of less and less priority, will come to Spotlight with a sympathetic eye. The overall sense of the film as a tribute to an outmoded era extends both to the texture of the image (though shot digitally on the Arri Alexa, Spotlight has been given a grainy film look) and to the old-fashioned narrative’s aims. Refreshingly, McCarthy and coscreenwriter Josh Singer do not feel the need to complicate their protagonists by revealing some dubious back story or unnecessary “dark” side, a tactic which has bogged down many a recent American drama.

Nevertheless, Spotlight does not entirely avoid the pitfalls and clichés of the genre, allowing fine actors to deliver rote lines like “We’re going after the system!” and “They control everything!”; at the most histrionic moment, Ruffalo screams “We gotta show them . . . This is bullshit!” before slamming a door and angrily exiting. One could argue that such passion is an apt dramatic device for a film so relentlessly focused on the single-minded mission of truth-uncovering reportage, yet these moments bring Spotlight a little too close to grandstanding, and this is detrimental to a film that’s already given to unsubtle visual gestures. I lost count after a while of all the shots in which a looming church dwarfs its surrounding homes like an evil castle on the hill. Such images hammer home the point of the film and the article it’s based on: that the decades of abuse were not because of a few bad apples but larger, deeply systemic problems in the Church that go all the way to the top, way past just the archdiocese of Boston. The film constantly reminds us that we’re watching a David and Goliath battle, in which a tiny four-person investigation team, whose section is perilously close to being on the chopping block, dares to take on the Church, and for a newspaper whose subscribers are 53% Catholic.

In centering on those who need not wrestle with questions of personal faith, Spotlight concerns itself with religion only as an organization. For a film about direct journalistic and legal action, this makes sense. But in allowing its only spiritual characters to be the Church’s victims, left on the narrative’s peripheries, it feels like it misses something about the overall makeup of the city in which it takes place, despite a seeming aim for authenticity, as evidenced by the many locals cast in supporting roles. Priests are strictly abstracted bogeymen here, a point underlined when Matt discovers that one of the accused lives on his own street; when he goes outside at night to stand in front of it, the house stares back at him silently, and it might as well be the abandoned abode of Michael Myers. Spotlight is savvy in focusing on process, yet when it occasionally reduces its core concerns to a simple crusader-versus-conspirator, good-versus-evil battle, it loses the story. Thankfully, Ruffalo, Keaton, and the rest of the cast are always there to dig, search, find the thread, and help set it in place again.