Spotlight is a showcase for everyman actors, as well as a chance for “big” actors to dial back and do solid, everyman work. A dramatization of the 2001 Boston Globe investigation that exposed the Catholic Church’s cover up of pedophile priests, the movie is a testament to the unglamorous work of old-fashioned journalism — and the sort of de-glammed performances it takes to capture that.
The title comes from the Globe’s four-person Spotlight team: Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and their editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). I mention them all because each contributes something vital to the movie’s mood of can-do cooperation. It’s telling that d’Arcy James, the least familiar face among the four, registers as strongly as anyone, not because he’s doing anything particularly different or worthy of attention, but because the performances are all working in conjunction.
Keaton, of course, is coming off a high-wire, Oscar-nominated performance in Birdman, which makes it particularly impressive that he’s able to rein things in here and deliver something completely different. Robby is an unassuming cajoler, a guy who works his sources with a bar-side manner — then hits them with a tough question that closes like a vice.
Schreiber is the news editor as grim reaper.
There are other scenery-chewers here who refuse to take a bite. John Slattery has a quiet unease as another Globe editor, while Stanley Tucci actually seeks the sidelines as a single-minded victims’ lawyer. My favorite performance in the film — perhaps because I remember men like him from my own newspaper days — might be Liev Schreiber’s as Marty Baron, the Globe’s new top editor. Jewish and just moved to Boston, Baron is an outsider whose fresh perspective allows him to see that the city’s denial about the scope of the scandal even infects his own staff. Tasked with turning out great journalism even as the industry is beginning to crumble beneath him (there are little nods to the specter of the Internet), Schreiber’s Baron is the news editor as grim reaper. He knows that a tough story needs to be told, he knows that it will take monumental effort to do it well and he marshals his overworked, underpaid staff to get it.
In terms of structure and form, director Tom McCarthy, who wrote the script with Josh Singer, have taken All the President’s Men as their clear model. Like that dramatization of the reporting of the Watergate scandal, this does nothing to sexify the field of journalism. At the Globe, the Spotlight team works from what appears to be a cramped, dingy basement office. The overall production designed could be described as filing cabinet chic, while the costuming is defined by Keaton’s blah, button-down shirts and McAdams’ grown-out roots. There is even a pointedly deflating moment near the end, after the story has finally been published and Ruffalo’s Rezendes triumphantly delivers a copy to Tucci’s lawyer, who was one of his sources. The lawyer politely congratulates him, tosses the paper to the side and excuses himself so he can meet with two new victims and their devastated mother. It’s not a put-down, just a cold splash of perspective.
This isn’t to say the movie exploits the victims’ tragedy in any way. Spotlight is indeed enraging, but not inflaming. Mostly it quietly, mournfully acknowledges how damaging the abuse was for the victims — physically, psychologically and spiritually. As an itchy adult survivor (Neal Huff) explains to the Spotlight team early on, “When a priest does this to you, he robs you of your faith.” The film is careful to distinguish between the church — “made of men,” as another character says — and God.
Not all of the characters can make that distinction, and understandably so. One of the most moving moments in the picture, at least for me, came when one of them was finally able to do so. Among Robby’s many contacts is Jim Sullivan, a Catholic Church insider played by the talented everyman actor Jamey Sheridan. Robby has been pressuring Sullivan to divulge information for most of the film, eventually confronting him with a list of suspected priests. At first Sullivan kicks Robby out of his house, but then he meets him out on the street. What does a less-is-more actor like Sheridan do to communicate Sullivan’s monumental change of heart? A hard look at Robby, then an outstretched hand for the list, so that he can quietly confirm the names. It’s a gesture of justice, and of faith.