Reviewed by Thomas Doherty
The newspaper yarn used to be a Hollywood staple. What with so many screenwriters having honed their typing skills as reporters on metropolitan dailies in New York and Chicago, it was only natural that, once the talkies demanded snappy dialogue, the ink-stained wretch would morph into a celluloid hero. Perfected if not actually invented by Ben Hecht, whose play with Charles MacArthur, The Front Page (1928), was a valentine to the bloodsport tabloid wars of the Jazz Age, the genre typeset the image of the cinematic newshound as a streetwise wordsmith who never let the facts get in the way of a good story. Hard-nosed Irishmen and world-weary Jews mostly, they were fast-talking and heavy-drinking, but only faux cynical. After all, there was no higher calling than to be a tribune of the Fourth Estate waving the flag for the First Amendment. Or maybe it was just the adrenaline rush of chasing sirens and scooping the other guy. “Hildy—you’re a newspaperman!” cries Walter Burns in His Girl Friday (1940), the distaff remake, incredulous that his ace reporter and ex-wife would prefer any other career, least of all wife and mother, to the tornado frenzy of headline hunting. Even Charles Foster Kane, in the newspaper yarn that was the apotheosis of the genre, thinks it would be fun to run a newspaper.
No editor at the turn-of-the millennium Boston Globe seems to have a flask of whiskey in his vest pocket and, were a reporter to engage in the roughhouse antics of the Hecht-MacArthur newsroom in the office space of today’s corporate media, he would be hauled down to the HR department for mandatory sensitivity training. No motor-mouthed byplay, no pulse-pounding deadline pressure, no stop-the-presses hysteria, no, well, fun. In Spotlight, journalism is serious business. And—not to bury the lede—it plays less as a paean to a noble profession than an elegy to a set of practices that are as dead as the steam-powered printing press.
Set in 2001–2002, on the cusp of the Internet revolution, during the wrenching transition from analog broadsheets to digital screens, Spotlight is a newspaper procedural chronicling The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize–winning investigative series exposing the epidemic of sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Boston. Directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Cobbler) and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer (writer and showrunner for the loopy television series Fringe and Lie to Me), the fact-checked film is a cleanly edited dispatch from the journalistic frontlines with no flowery phrases or bloated verbiage. Of course, the revelation that priests were abusing acolytes was not new, even if the scale of the abuse was dumbfounding. (As the film offhandedly admits, The Boston Phoenix, the city’s late, lamented alternative weekly, got there first.) What The Boston Globe series nailed was that the abuse had been condoned and facilitated at the highest levels of the archdiocese of Boston. It was not a question of a few, or even a lot of, bad apples but of an institution that was corrupt at the core. A true crime story with no forensic lab work or yellow-taped crime scenes, no narrative tension or moral ambiguity, the film exudes slow-burn dread but no spine-tingling suspense. We know the front page headline above the fold and we know that, in the face-off between two First Amendment rights, freedom of the press trumps freedom of religion—at least as practiced in Boston in the second half of the twentieth century.
The establishing shot that introduces us to the Globe newsroom tracks through an overly lit floor of cubicles and cramped cubbyholes, inhabited by nondescript white-collar types in off-the-rack wardrobes. Like a World War II combat squad or heist crew, the four-person “Spotlight” team, a special investigative unit within the paper, is made up of different character types, each with a specialized skill set: team leader and grizzled veteran Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, who looks the part); pushy, passionate, and pain in the ass Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in a bad haircut); demure and sympathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (a glammed-down Rachel McAdams); and by-the-AP-style-book Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). It is a measure of the complexity of the tale, and the impenetrability of the Church, that whereas a tagteam duo was sufficient to uncover Watergate and bring down the presidency in All the President’s Men (1976), the coordinated investigative firepower of The Boston Globe must be marshaled to illuminate the cobwebbed catacombs of the Catholic Church in Boston.
The key member of the team performs the least legwork: tenacious and soft-spoken editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who smells something rotten in the city of Boston—and in its paper of record, dependent as it is on a fifty-three-percent Catholic subscriber base. A Jew, unmarried, and unimpressed with the Globe’s season tickets at Fenway Park, Baron is not part of the kinship network of Boston College High alums who rub shoulders at the State House and in the parking lot after Sunday mass. Granted an audience with His Eminence Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou, oozing extreme unctuousness)—a prince of the church who is used to having his ring, and his ass, kissed—Baron is gifted with a thick Catholic Catechism from the ironically named Prelate, a stylebook the editor will not follow.
A brief prologue, set in 1976, shows how things were handled in Boston for so long: two Irish duty officers at a district police station are talking, elliptically, about the depredations of the priest back in lockup (the eventually infamous serial abuser John Geoghan), before the fixers from the Church arrive in an ominous black Cadillac to spring the perpetrator, spiriting him away to safety, and another parish, leaving no record behind on the books. Hollywood’s colorful outpost of postvocalic R’s has become home to a phalanx of Irish Catholic cops, pols, and priests whose convivial blarney protects a criminal netherworld that makes the intramural homicides of the uncollared hoods in Black Mass—the year’s other Boston-based exposé of corruption—seem benign by comparison.
Thomas Doherty is professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of numerous books on cinema.
Copyright © 2016 by Cineaste, Inc.
Cineaste, Vol. XLI, No. 2