Editor’s Notes: Spotlight is currently out in wide theatrical release.
I haven’t seen this kind of brilliant restraint in a journalism-themed procedural since David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Spotlight follows the Boston Globe’s – predictably enough – “spotlight” team when a new editor Marty Baron (played excellently by Liev Schreiber – yes, Sabertooth from X-Men) directs them towards the future-Pulitzer prize winning investigation into the Catholic Church’s abuse and subsequent cover up.
Director Tom McCarthy knew exactly what to do with this story and delivered on all three parameters that an exceptional procedural film needs: great actors that don’t chew scenery, a compelling true story, humanizing – not idolizing –its main characters and most importantly complete trust in its audience.
Journalistic films that know what they are doing like Good Night and Good Luck or All the President’s Men and now Spotlight always follow the main thread of the investigation that they are trying to bring to the public (McCarthyism, Watergate and the Boston Catholic Church Abuse Scandal respectively) yet they never tell you what you should believe. While there are great scenes weaved through there is never the one “Oscar-bating” scene where a character stands up and almost shouts at the audience what the theme of the story is (granted, there is a scene in Spotlight where Ruffalo does lose his temper, it is absolutely deserved and delivered with the professionalism Ruffalo possess).
The best press films act exactly as the best journalists would – they distribute the story without judgment, without bias and truly make you yearn for great journalists. For example, in Good Night and Good Luck I couldn’t get through the film without craving the exceptionality of Edward Murrow, or in Frost/Nixon the tenacious, adversarial showdown between David Frost and Richard Nixon. In Spotlight, we get of course the great Spotlight investigation team but we have an editor that truly knows what it means to be a newsman: Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who shows true restraint – which is a brilliant mirror to what director Tom McCarthy shows in creating this film – and intelligence in the face of a breaking and titillating story.
This theme of restraint is also the main theme that needs to be taken away from all of these brilliant journalism films. All of these great newswomen and newsmen were great because they were two-fold: immune to ratings and consequently sponsors and a true dedication to journalistic integrity. All of these characters from these films (mostly based on real people) truly cared about getting the story correct (Wolf Blitzer take note) rather than getting the story out there. They also cared about their personal integrity and drive that the press has a moral obligation to the public. Today, if you get a story wrong or have false data or discrepancies there are no real consequences, in fact there are far more rewards.
This theme is delivered in Spotlight when Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) halts the story to get the full scope, instead of just throwing a hastily made story out there that won’t make any change – something that harkens back to what the police in The Wire understood.
In a time of twenty-four hour news networks, twitter-reporters and irresponsible journalistic practices a film like Spotlight is a bittersweet-nostalgic haven. Spotlight is modest but it’s powerful and concise in its message and it works exactly how a true journalist should work: with restraint, trust in its audience and real integrity in its art.