There is nothing inherently surprising about the events that take place in Tom McCarthy’s new movie Spotlight. The story chronicles the Boston Herald’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s decades-spanning cover-up of sexual abuse and molestation, a truth that has since been brought to light in a very public way. The investigators investigate, the writers write, and higher-ups in the fields of law, politics, religion, and media all pursue a variety of disparate agendas. No single character steps wildly out of line in either their personal or professional lives, each diligently working on behalf of a cause, which results in turning the movie into that rarest of things. While most of the very best flicks require largely unforeseen twists and turns to keep their audience engaged, Spotlight employs no such tomfoolery. It stands proudly as top-notch filmmaking and story telling by carefully and confidently relaying an important narrative, and requires nary a gasp or head turn to keep you fully engrossed on every imaginable level.
Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James star as the Boston Herald’s Spotlight team, a group of reporters tasked with conducting prolonged, thorough investigations in Massachusetts' state capitol, only turning in a very small handful of pieces per year in order to maintain the meticulousness of their fact-checking. The paper at large is shaken by the arrival of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an impossibly stoic outsider to the city with a reputation for budgetary rigor and no non-sense leadership. Sensing an untapped story, Baron calls into question a recent report on the alleged nefarious actions of a local priest, and not only demands the Spotlight team to suspend their current project in favor accumulating further information, but also sets out to sue the church in order to receive pertinent documents that have since been legally classified. The local Cardinal takes umbrage with the Globe’s further snooping, setting in motion a struggle to reveal the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
McCarthy is also searching for a purified form of truth, which he locates by refusing to dress up the tale with either showy directorial choices or exaggerated portrayals of the true-life events. His guiding hand may be almost invisible, but it’s just as absolute; there might be little-to-no figurative fireworks in the film’s runtime, but everything keeps clicking so perfectly into place you might mistake it for a two-hour long Rube Goldberg machine. The script, written by McCarthy and Josh Singer and almost assured the Best Original Screenplay Oscar come February, is similarly economic, and has room only for scenes that advance the plot, or deepen our understanding. Other creative teams might have juiced up the tragic nature of the events with loudly delivered scenes of amped up, theatrical emotion (see: Oscar Bait). McCarthy and crew understand the intrinsic weight of the story, and their all-encompassing restraint only ensures that the whole thing hits that much harder.
This emotional underplaying is made possible by the film’s decision to focus on the reporters much more often than the perpetrators, a choice that is bolstered at every turn by a stellar cast. While Ruffalo appears to be reissuing his Foxcatcher performance for further evaluation, Keaton and McAdams are subtle and strong from first frame to last. Schreiber is something different; he under-sells Barron to such an extent that he might even be over-selling. It’s that rare performance where an actor does so breathtakingly little that every slight movement seems gigantic in nature. His Zen-fueled self-presentation never flags, and neither does the movie's. They each know what needs to be done, and proceed to do it with steady, sure-minded confidence. As it turns out, that kind of thing can be a spectacle unto itself, no unforeseen twists or figurative fireworks required.