Although not required, most films tend to have a point; some sort of message or takeaway that leaves an impression on the viewer. A big storytelling decision is to approach this head on, hide it in the subtext, or hide it in a story ostensibly about something else. Spotlight, for being a film about journalism, a trade which prides itself on directness and (attempted) objectivity, sneakily and subtly has a hidden theme perhaps just as important as the events it chronicles on the surface.
The Spotlight team consists of four reporters, led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton). They conduct deep investigative reports for the Boston Globe and are afforded a higher level of confidentiality given the potentially sensitive nature of their endeavors. In 2001, the Globe's new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) tasks them with following up on reports of sexual abuse by clergymen. There's potentially documentation proving that the Archbishop of Boston not only knew, but actively covered it up while doing nothing to prevent further abuses. As the layers of the cover-up are lifted the scale of the abuse and the scope of who's complicit both continue to grow. The question looms, can a newspaper take on one of the oldest and largest institutions in human history?
The film is beautifully put together. There's a bit of a somber tone, but it becomes more appropriate as the film continues and gives gravitas to the subject matter. The set design and deliberate framing makes this way more visually compelling than it has any right to be considering it mostly takes place in offices full of people conversing. Howard Shore's amazing score reminded me that scoring big blockbuster adventures is not the limit to his talents. The pacing varies, but this is a feature. Large chunks of the film are dialogue heavy and fast paced, and these segments are broken up by montages that show the very real tedium of a job that consisted of basically doing professional-grade homework. These sequences give you a nice break to digest and react to whatever has been most recently brought to light.
The characters are admittedly a little one note. Each one seems to embody a different journalism movie stock character. We have the stoic and tough as nails top editor (Schreiber). There's the grizzled no-nonsense subordinate editor (Keaton). Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) is the carefree type who almost treats this like a game. Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is the sympathetic ear capable of getting anyone to open up. Predictable as they are, they're still all polished to a mirror shine, with great performances all around, particularly from Keaton and Ruffalo. The film gives allusions to what drives each character even as the stakes get higher, but never delves too deeply into any of their backgrounds. This is in service to the sequence of events laying out. Since they're the storytellers, we don't need to focus on them too much as people as much as the job they're doing.
There's one major event that's almost entirely unrelated to the main plot. If you've been paying attention to when this takes place, it shouldn't be any shocker what this is. This could have disrupted the entire film, but they manage to weave it in subtly and move along. It's almost distracting, but it would have probably been the worse choice to leave it out entirely.
Throughout the film, there are allusions to the difficulties facing print journalism in the early 21st century. Difficulty adapting to the internet age and staff cuts are offhandedly mentioned. Knowing the direction the industry would take, seeing this almost feels like watching the first act of a disaster film.
It's impressive though to watch the sort of journalism that used social engineering and phone calls as it's primary tools, rather than web searches. The film as a whole views like a big love letter to national news media. While primarily, this is about the story the characters break, it is also the story of them breaking it and the hard dedicated work that went into it, above and beyond what most bloggers would be capable of. As the film goes on, the impression given what these journalist uncovered would have continued were it not for a diligent, free, and professionally trained press; that this institution is critical to maintaining and enforcing our values as a society. Spotlight is as good a reinforcement of this message as any journalism film I've seen in over a decade. If the search for truth in the face of difficulty excites you enough to not require much action, this one is for you.