Smart, Tense, Thrilling ‘Spotlight’ Is One of the Year’s Best Films

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Let’s talk about the two most important shots in Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight. They arrive fairly close together, are simple in execution and subtext, and are both spectacularly effective. The first finds the four reporters on the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” investigative team — Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — gathered around a desk, where a key source on the telephone (an uncredited Richard Jenkins) lays out for them, for the first time, exactly how big the story of child sexual abuse in the Catholic church is. As the scene plays, McCarthy slowly dollys out from the desk, an immediate physical manifestation of their world expanding around them.

The other sticky shot comes just after this, as Matty’s at home going through the diocese directories that they’ve decoded, determining not only the priests who have been moved around suspiciously (“sick leave” is a popular explanation), but the internal “halfway houses” where they reside. Matty sees something — initially, it’s unclear what. He leaves his kitchen through the back door, goes out to the sidewalk, moves down the block, and hangs a left, his jog becoming a run. He stops in front of a house and stares at it before returning home, putting a handwritten sign on his refrigerator, warning his children to stay away from that house and the men inside it. It’s a great move and a powerful reveal, but it’s something more than that: a jostled awakening for one of our protagonists, the realization that this horrible thing isn’t just happening in his city. It’s right at his door.

Plucking out and highlighting these moments may make them, and the film that contains them, sound flashier and showier than it is. In fact, McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent, Win Win), who co-wrote and directed, is a modest filmmaker, emphasizing dialogue and character, but his work here is taut and forceful; he keeps his scenes short, tight, and well-connected, interspersing complimentary investigative threads and mingling confrontations and discoveries to amp up tension. Comparisons to All the President’s Men aren’t just about subject matter; they’re about directness of style, and the room this director gives a film to breathe.

That said, the subject matter does make the dots fairly easy to connect — and not just because they’re both stories about newspaper reporters cracking open a giant scandal. These are methodical, patient films, like the reporters at their centers, and they convey the grunt work, the dead-end leads, the hours spent squinting at reports and getting doors slammed in faces, the sheer slog of working this long, this hard, on a story this important. It doesn’t just come together; it’s got a handful of fathers and mothers and midwives, and what’s perhaps most impressive about Spotlight is how they’re all complicated people, given the opportunity to gun it, to hesitate, to reach, and to claw.

And even better, no one gets away clean. McCarthy and Josh Singer’s screenplay confounds expectations left and right; take, as the finest example, the character of new editor-in-chief Marty Baron, played by the gigantic Liev Schrieber as a guy shrinking into his suits. He comes in like a corporate penny-pincher, a company man who’s never even been to Boston, reading Curse of the Bambino at his first meeting with Keaton’s Robby (to fit in) and talking enigmatically about taking “a hard look at things,” budget-wise. But it takes an outsider to bring up the story, and to push them to keep digging on it; he’s a pain in the ass, and also a very good editor. And as an outsider, he can withstand the pushback he gets from his editors, who insist it’s a nothing story.

Frankly, it would be infinitely more convenient for them if it were — since, we gradually discover, they’ve had opportunities to investigate this story before, and declined to do so. This is a thread that keeps recurring throughout McCarthy’s film, with a frequency that surpasses the initial hints of lip service. It’s not just that they missed it once; they missed it over and over again, because when you get all the way down to it, they just didn’t want to know.

And that’s what separates Spotlight from something as crassly simplistic as Truth; it’s a movie smart enough to know that these people are fallible, that they ignored something because it was too horrible to contemplate, just as so many people on so many levels of this thing did, for so many years. “This is how it happens, isn’t it?” asks Robby, when the insular cronyism that’s kept this story quiet finally stands in front of him, but he also knows it seldom has to go that far. People make excuses, dismiss accusations, insist they know better. No one wants to believe what other people are capable of — until they can’t ignore it anymore.

Spotlight is about that moment, and finding your way through it. What an incredible film this is.

Spotlight opens Friday in limited release.