Inspirational true stories trumpet lots of commendable human traits—heroism, perseverance, compassion—but Spotlight may be the first to celebrate competence. Based on the 2001 Boston Globe investigation that revealed the depth of the Catholic Church’s coverup of clergy sexual misconduct, this straightforward, riveting drama simply puts one foot in front of the other for a couple hours. On paper, this has all the makings of the typical bland award-season contender—worthy subject matter, the potential for righteous indignation, a David-versus-Goliath tale where the little guy wins—but what mostly keeps the film from falling into Oscar-bait generalities is that commitment to simple storytelling. The men and women of the newspaper’s Spotlight team just wanted to get their story right—the movie about them does the same.
Spotlight is a murderers’ row of superb actors, and one of the film’s constant pleasures is watching them bear down and knock scenes out of the park as if it’s no big thing. Michael Keaton plays Robby Robinson, the editor of Spotlight, a specialized section of the Globe that takes months digging into a story before deciding whether or not it’s truly worthy of their time. His reporters are “dogged,” but not in a way that makes us think they’re superheroes. These characters are defined by the barest of traits: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) doesn’t have the greatest social graces; Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) spends not a single second worrying about justifying the fact that she’s the only woman on the team; and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) seems like a nice enough fella, even though we never get much of a sense of his inner life.
Actually, that’s the case for everyone we meet in Spotlight, including new Globe editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and longtime managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery): Their most obvious characteristic is that they’re good at their jobs. In the world of Spotlight, that’s all that matters. The movie gets rolling once Baron catches wind of under-reported stories of parishioners who claimed to have been molested by their priests, and he tasks Spotlight with seeing if there’s any validity to the allegations. Because the charges are being made against the Catholic Church—and because this is Boston—such a request isn’t taken lightly, and consequently, Robinson and his team can’t simply interview the alleged victims. They also have to keep it all quiet until they know for a fact that there’s a legitimate story here.
Spotlight was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, an actor-turned-director who in his best films (The Station Agent, Win Win) has given his casts a supportive platform to deliver lived-in, three-dimensional performances that are “distinctive” without being “super-quirky.” For his new movie, McCarthy seems to have encouraged his actors to do as little as possible—to let the story itself do the heavy emoting—and as a result, even a potentially broad role like the harried, grumpy lone-wolf defense attorney (Stanley Tucci) fighting for his abused clients ends up feeling wholly natural, just another regular guy in the middle of a terrible scandal.
McCarthy’s low-key strategy takes a lot of confidence and plenty of guts: The incendiary nature of the subject matter would have inspired plenty of other filmmakers to metaphorically beat their chests and rain down fire and brimstone. Instead, Spotlight is a model of quiet moral indignation, these reporters’ disgust overshadowed by their focus on the task at hand. (If anything, the movie argues that to be a good reporter, one has to keep emotion out of it.) McCarthy and his cast don’t worry about grandstanding, don’t spend a second being concerned that somehow we’re not going to “get” the horrors of the coverup these journalists unearthed. Just as these reporters are consummate professionals, so too does Spotlight come across as refreshingly mature and sober. McCarthy tells this story with calm assurance, and from the myriad small details that feel impeccably right—life at a newspaper, life in the Catholic Church, life in Boston—you never doubt you’re in good hands.
That salute to competence extends to the cast. With no one showboating, Spotlight exudes the rolled-up-sleeves intensity of a well-oiled ensemble loving the chance to devour such smart material. McAdams is so muted you might miss how superb she is as Pfeiffer, who’s just a good journalist knocking on doors, asking tough questions, and adept with the right responses that get her subjects to share more information. Keaton and Ruffalo are more center-stage, but again, it’s a case of action defining character: Nobody gives a droning monologue about their back story for our benefit, and so we learn about these people by the jobs they do. We admire them because of their skill and integrity. We don’t need to know anything else.
This measured approach has its limitations. For as sober and engrossing as Spotlight is, it can sometimes make a virtue out of its spare style, which can be a problem when the film actually tries for emotional resonance. (Many of the Spotlight crew are lapsed Catholics, and the shock of these allegations troubles them all the more.) It’s a strange thing to say, but Spotlight almost could have benefited from a little of that good ol’ Oscar-bait rabble-rousing spirit: The film risks becoming too monotonous at times. (The sting of the Catholic Church’s moral failings are almost too tastefully dramatized at a distance.) But those are nitpicks for a film whose strong, clear attributes are undeniable. “Why can’t more dramas be this smart, this well done?” you’ll probably ask yourself afterward. Me, I’m just grateful we got at least one this awards season.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.