Director: Tom McCarthy
Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton
4 (out of 5) Globes
There’s one moment late in “Spotlight” when Mark Ruffalo gets his Oscar speech. As dogged Boston Globe reporter Michael Rezendes, he’s spent months in 2001 as part of a four-person team trying to expose a conspiracy within the Catholic Church to protect a slew of priests who had serially molested children. Roadblocks have been flung up at every turn; his paper, under a new, unreadably placid editor (Liev Schreiber), is in the midst of budget cuts, which definitely target his money-hogging, long-form investigative team. Rezendes’ typical mien is boyish, hunched-over and fast-talking, but he’s at long last had enough and launches into a shouted, hold-back-the-tears soliloquy, spouting boilerplate like, “We’ve got to nail these scumbags!”
It’s a rare moment of weakness in a film that has earned it, delivered by a character who has earned it too. A lean, focused no-nonsense paean to the importance of journalism, “Spotlight” makes its case through hard facts, not sanctimonious speeches. It both is and isn’t about the Catholic Church itself, which rarely makes an appearance, except through lawyers (Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan) forced to keep stum when it comes to spilling what they know. Instead it’s a look at process — the most OCD portrayal of the gruntwork of investigating since another Ruffalo movie, “Zodiac.” “Spotlight” has little of the David Fincher film’s chops; as directed by Tom McCarthy — the “Station Agent” guy, doing a sharp 180 after the laughably disastrous “The Cobbler” — it sticks close to the “invisible” style of Sidney Lumet, with static shots of smart people talking fast, where the craft is subtle if it’s noticeable at all.
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Just about everything that isn’t about the investigation falls by the wayside. Occasionally details about reporters’ home lives creep in, but they tend to be germane to this calm and collected and respectful study of workaholicism. At one point Rezendes is seen living in a sparsely-decorated fleabag apartment, the result of separating from his wife. “I’ve been busy,” he disinterestedly explains about patching things up, 95 percent of his attention still on work. This isn’t some fawning movie ode to reporting; it knows to include tiny details, like how journos have to know not to simply write that victims were “molested,” a term too vague for the abuses they suffered. When September 11 happens, it’s not simply shown because the film couldn’t ignore a major event that occurred mid-story. The Globe had to take into account that they couldn’t publish their sprawling bombshell of an expose while people were still fresh off a national tragedy. They knew they have to strategize about when pieces run for maximum impact.
This is a nascent form of what has taken over journalism in 2015, when all reporters have to concern themselves not only with articles themselves but how to get them out there, often obsessing over clicks even more than what they’re reporting. There are a lot of creepy prophesies to the current apocalyptic days of newspapers in “Spotlight,” which does exist in part to remind audiences of today of how rigorous, supported journalism practiced by people getting a working wage can get stuff changed. But it doesn’t oversell its case, and only marginally fumbles during its very occasional dips into showing the Church itself. (There are at least two occasions too many where Rezendes just stares, seething, at innocent church services.) The film is very indebted to “All the President’s Men,” complete with an ending that cuts out as the aftermath is just beginning to be felt. But it’s more than mere imitation. It gets not only why what’s being reported mattered, but also that there are few pleasures quite like watching people who are great at doing almost nothing but their jobs. Perhaps most important of all, it knows there are also few things more distracting than bad Boston accents.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge