The journalism thriller is one of the hardest film genres to pull off. Why? Because they’re usually way over-the-top. As a journalist, I always find movies like that cringe-worthy. Reporting can generally be boring while you’re in the process of it. The writing and the end product are just one thing. The steps to get there are often slow and people who haven’t gone to journalism school and have never had to chase a source down for months at a time don’t understand that writing a story is all about timing. And it takes a lot of time to tell a good story correctly.
“Spotlight” is a journalism thriller that finally gets the genre right. And it’s because it gets rid of the thriller part. The film isn’t for the faint of heart by any means. It’s about the Spotlight team at The Boston Globe who investigate and eventually write a long-form piece about Catholic priests who molested children in Boston and how the Church had been involved with trying to silence victims as not to have a crisis on their hands. They one a Pulitzer for it. Juicy, yes, because it’s a true story. It’s the type of film that makes you squeamish because of the subject matter. And as a practicing Catholic myself, it brought up a history that hits far too close to home and handles it both objectively and humanely.
But it’s not as exciting as it necessarily sounds. The film spends most of the time showing how the three reporters and their editor took years to report and piece the story together. Which makes it all that more realistic. There’s a scene where the team spends three weeks looking through old church directories to find names of priests to add up in a spreadsheet. There are no explosions. No giant courtroom scenes where lawyers yell at other lawyers or a romantic love story on the side. What you see is what you get; late nights in the newsroom looking at old newspaper clippings, interview sessions with victims in local Boston coffee shops, concerned Catholic school supporters. “Spotlight” perfectly shows how journalism really works. It’s a behind the scene look that doesn’t need high stakes drama to keep your attention.
In fact, “Spotlight” seems to represent journalism at its very best. It’s a story about people who were good at their jobs and who were focused on getting the story right. The movie also gets the representation of Boston right, because the city serves as its own character in the abuse scandal. As we know, Boston is filled to the brim with Irish Catholics and the scandal would have broken a lot of hearts had it been revealed, which is why the Globe and other papers never tried to tackle the story before the Spotlight team. And because Boston is such a strong, proud city, the Spotlight team took their time with the story to make sure they weren’t misleading their readers.
What makes “Spotlight” so good, of course, is its human elements. The team is made up of some of our finest actors; Michael Keaton as team leader Robbie, Rachel McAdams as Sasha the researcher, Mark Ruffalo as Mike the writer. What makes the actors so good as the team is that we never know too much about their personal lives. We know just enough. And what we do know about them never interferes with their jobs. None of them have personal vendetta. None of them are trying to hurt the Catholic Church. They’re trying to give a voice to the victims, to tell the city what they deserve to know. Nothing more.
You’ll be able to read a million reviews on the Internet this week praising “Spotlight” for its general awesomeness. They’re all correct, but let me play devils advocate for a moment and point out the funny cliche things that possibly the best movie of the year still can’t avoid. One, the movie features literally one female (McAdams) and a brief appearance by a black police officer. Other than that, everyone is white men. Also, Ruffalo’s character is the only one that comes close to being a journo thriller cliche. In a scene towards the end of the movie Keaton tells the team they can’t publish the story just yet. They still need to confirm the nearly 90 cases of abuse were in fact defended and then swept under the rug. Ruffalo flies off the handle because he wants the story to be told right away for the people of Boston’s sake. He’s the only one who borders along unrealistic. And of course, with any drama, some dialogue gets a little Aaron Sorkin-like in that it’s too perfect. But then again, who cares! We watch movies for clever dialogue.
And then there’s the case of Keaton altogether. I’m such a huge Keaton fan. I’d advocate for him any day. I love that he’s making this comeback work for him. But there’s been a lot of Oscar talk for him for “Spotlight” and I’m not sure if I’m hopping on that train just yet. He was good, obviously, but I found myself frustrated that we didn’t get to have more from him. I wanted more focus on him. I wanted more of something, anything from him. “Spotlight’s” only weakness is that Keaton is underused.
I could go on and on about this movie all day, so I’ll leave you with a closing thought. “Spotlight” shines a spotlight on great journalism, an almost lost diamond in our world of social media and constant media fodder. If anything, this film will restore your hope in the power of a good story and the power of reporting done with care.
Want to learn more about the Spotlight team? The Boston Globe has a fun story behind the story section up on their site right now. Check it out.