It’s disheartening to think of a story-driven, intelligent ensemble piece as a throwback, but, sadly, in this current studio system, it is. The 1970s is commonly thought of as the golden age of serious movie-making, the decade when movies were dramatic, thought-provoking, political, successful and entertaining all at once. Movies like Network, The China Syndrome, Coming Home and All the President’s Men are just a few of the more spectacular and timeless masterpieces from the era that gave us Lumet, Pollock and Pakula, in addition to Scorsese, Spielberg and Coppola. Now, 40 years later, director Tom McCarthy is threatening to place his name in those ranks, as his current film, Spotlight, not only harkens back to the smart and sophisticated current-events dramas of the ‘70s, but has almost all the same energy, power and passion of its predecessors.
Spotlight tells the true story of a team of Boston Globe reporters, who, back in 2001, uncovers what would turn out to be the tip of the iceberg of one of the biggest international scandals in history: the widespread accusations of child molestation within the local Catholic Archdiocese, and the subsequent cover-up by the Church. The comparison to All the President’s Men, in both scale and style, cannot be denied here. Director/writer McCarthy (along with co-writer Josh Singer) has crafted a brisk and dense yet easy-to-follow narrative that hits every important beat, communicating all the necessary information, but never belittling either the subject nor the target while keeping the drama and the conflict intact. This is, naturally, a delicate subject, but every second of this film is handled with precision, and you feel you are watching masters of their craft, because, honestly, you are.
Spotlight feels like a throwback to the ‘70s not only because it reminds you so much of that classic journalism movie All the President’s Men, but because Spotlight is a movie that relies on two things and two things only: a great script and a brilliant ensemble cast. There are no bells and whistles here, absolutely nothing showy except the foundation of what used to make a movie great and what still can when you see it nailed down like it is here.
The story is brutal and it is honest. It unspools slowly, and you almost don’t notice it building momentum until you find yourself gasping under the weight of its revelations. Nothing overly dramatic, no Hollywood “gotcha” moments—just reporters pounding the pavement, making phone calls, interviewing ordinary people, getting them to tell their story. Gradually, the story comes into focus—and this movie is compelling every inch of the way. Writers McCarthy and Singer keep all the emphasis on the story, never wandering off to do any soul searching, philosophizing or navel-gazing. Character development arises out of people doing their job and the deeper meaning of it all comes through loud and clear with every uncovered truth. The filmmakers rightfully assume their audience have brains, hearts and consciences and never insult any of them.
And the only way it works is when you have an ensemble cast this good. The original Boston Globe story that inspired the movie was created as a result of a team effort, and this movie is no different. Led by Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton, the cast also includes Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci. The entire cast is sensational and keep the story humming along at a fantastic pace, especially when you consider it’s all phone calls and one-on-one conversations about things that happened 40 years ago.
But it’s about more than that. Spotlight is about journalism, it’s about institutions, it’s about being afraid, it’s about not being afraid, it’s about power and it’s about abuse of that power. And it’s about the power to shine a light on all the little things that can add up up to be the most powerful things of all. It’s about paying attention—and it’s about being heard, then and now.
If Spotlight is a throwback to when movies were made simply, smartly and with significance, then let’s hear it for nostalgia.