Spotlight / Tom McCarthy / 2015 / fourstar

Active Ingredients: Editorial vision and good sense; Pace; Details of journalism
Side Effects: Lack of emphasis on the individual; Repetitive structure

At one point in Spotlight, the team of Boston Globe reporters investigating sex abuse in the Catholic church decides to “follow the system, not the man.” With a detective’s methodology and singularity of focus, they’ll research the overarching system that allowed rampant abuse to take place rather than scrutinize the psychology of any one offender. Tom McCarthy’s absorbing journalistic procedural could be said to follow the same editorial vision.

This editorial choice represents the film’s greatest strengths, but carries with inherent limitations. Like All the President’s Men, Spotlight derives drama from details. It charts the exhausting work of journalism, pouring over dusty archives, hounding down leads and pulling all-nighters over pots of coffee. And indeed, the details behind good journalism make for riveting drama—Spotlight could even be read as requiem for the craft, which entered its death throes in the film’s immediately-post-9/11, pre-Facebook world.

By adhering to a systemic treatment of the material, McCarthy maintains a fleet pace and adroitly directs the audience’s attention from key detail to key detail across scenes. The tactic also allows the audience to infer information about the world of the film without spoon-feeding them; for example, the infrastructure and politics animating both the media and the church feel authentic and well-drawn. Finally, Spotlight‘s editorial vision keeps the focus on the full scope of the sex abuse scandal. This isn’t a story about a few “bad apple” priests who molested children, it’s a story about appeasement, about a broad power structure that refused to act.

Journalistically, this is the appropriate tactic to tell the story; dramatically, however, it does have its shortcomings. By focusing so rigorously on the system, Spotlight has little time to spend on the personalities of the predators and victims. A few survivors of molestation are interviewed, but these scenes serve to provide our team of reporters with leads, and only tangentially to offer a specific, human face to the problem. The topic of faith is rarely broached and a positive representation of Catholic community is missing, falling outside the film’s, pardon the pun, spotlight.

Similarly, the film’s broad scope takes the emphasis away from the characterization of any one protagonist. It’s a true ensemble piece, and the team of five reporters that comprises the Spotlight crew serve the structural role of a singular character. Perhaps it’s for the best that McCarthy elected to excise familiar beats of domestic strife over too much overtime; the “you’re in too deep” scenes are not missed. Still, the tactic calls for the film’s remarkable stable of performers to create their characters from the aggregate effect of their actions. The cast rises to the occasion—particularly Liev Schreiber, who captures a full portrait in a few scant scenes—but the journalists are more functionary than dramatically compelling.

Nonetheless, Spotlight is the rare film about a serious issue that also demonstrates restraint and routinely makes the right decisions. It’s a refreshingly smart film about smart journalism, and shines a light on the conspicuous lack of good sense in the world of both these endeavors.