Some of the best movies ever made have been about journalists. “Citizen Kane,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network” are the biggest names, but you could also throw “His Girl Friday,” “Ace in the Hole,” and “Zodiac” on the list, as well.
By Noah Gittell
Some of the best movies ever made have been about journalists. “Citizen Kane,” “All the President’s Men,” and “Network” are the biggest names, but you could also throw “His Girl Friday,” “Ace in the Hole,” and “Zodiac” on the list, as well. It’s fair to ask: Why do journalists make such compelling subjects? For starters, freedom of the press is a fundamental American principle, and one that is constantly under threat; many of these films examine that vulnerability, while also using the journalist protagonist as an audience entry point to uncover a ripping good yarn.
“Spotlight” may not be among the greatest films of all time, if only because it fails to break ground in any meaningful way, but it is still nearly perfect. With a timely subject matter, a stellar cast top-to-bottom, and crisp direction by Tom McCarthy, “Spotlight” is a thrilling, edifying film that deserves to be considered among the top films of this year.
Michael Keaton stars as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, director of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight section, which specializes in long-running investigations. With readership and revenue down, the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron, (Live Schreiber) signals Robinson’s division may be on the chopping block, but instead Baron encourages them to run with a long-gestating expose of child abuse in the Catholic Church. Robinson and his team of reporters – including Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams – set about doggedly tracking down victims and alleged abusers.
The acting is terrific throughout. Keaton takes a hard turn from last year’s existential “Birdman” to play the working-class Robinson with simple efficiency. McAdams makes the most of an under-written role, and Ruffalo brings nervous, youthful energy that livens up the film considerably. In minor roles, Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup steal the show as two lawyers with very different moral compasses who represented the victims in civil suits against the Church.
McCarthy’s direction also reflects the film’s workmanlike tone, sticking to the plain, naturalistic style he has displayed in previous efforts (his debut film was the great “The Station Agent”). There is one notable exception; in more than a few outdoor scenes, a church looms large in the background, threatening to monopolize the frame. The symbolism is obvious, if a little too on-the-nose: As Robinson and his team do the long, hard work of investigative journalism, they nervously expect the Church to wield its enormous influence and quash the story.
But that would be too simplistic for a film as good as “Spotlight,” which is not interested in drama for its own sake; instead, it values inquiry, insight, and, perhaps most importantly, self-criticism. The film deeply understands the way that the institutional blindness that can occur in a society when one entity gains too much power, and it impressively turns that critical eye not just on the city’s politicians or the Church’s leaders but on our heroic protagonists themselves. Looming in the back of the plot is a nagging feeling that maybe these journalists themselves ignored this story for too long, and for the same reasons that everyone else did: the abuse was too horrible to look at, and their respect for the Church was too endemic.
In this way, what makes “Spotlight” so relevant is its insight not only into the Church but also into journalism itself. In this era of shuttered newspapers — brought on by the cheap efficiency of Internet clickbait and Buzzfeed listicles — “Spotlight” highlights the type of expensive, longform journalism that only a few outlets now have the clout, patience, and money to produce. These days, freedom of the press is threatened by the difficult financial calculus of good reporting. The film shows what we lose when this type of journalism isn’t done, and what corrupt institutions gain.
But “Spotlight” is not an uncritical celebration of journalism, nor is it an elegy. It’s better than that. By turning the spotlight on its own hero journalists, the film enters into dialogue with itself, examining the very instruments it celebrates in order to make them stronger. It gives “Spotlight” an earned credibility, and it rewards the viewer with a thoughtful, even-handed, and engaging viewing experience.
My Rating: See it in the Theater