Spotlight10 Nov 2015
Before starting this favorable review, I should admit some biases. I care deeply about journalism. I work at the New York Times. I was taken with films like ALL THE PRESIDENTS MEN, GOOD NIGHT AND GOOD LUCK and FROST/NIXON when I saw them. I also rank Tom McCarthy’s STATION AGENT and THE VISITOR among my favorite all time films. So in some ways, you could say there was a high chance of me liking this film going in. But a similar argument could be made that I had high, and therefore easily dashable, expectations. But I saw TRUTH last weekend, and despite having a similar subject matter, that film did not live up to expectations at all.
SPOTLIGHT, on the other hand, dove right into the details of a fascinating story and didn’t come up from that basement until the story was finished. In fact, SPOTLIGHT could be described as an act of journalism itself. McCarthy and the filmmakers dove into the past, recreated an important story and told it to a new audience with vigor. The clothing, the cars, the billboards may seem dated but the story is fresh and important as ever. And lest I make it sound too didactic a film, the quality of writing, strong performances (especially Mark Ruffalo who between this and FOXCATCHER has turned in some great work), and a locomotive script kept me engaged the whole time.
To me, however, the most compelling feature of the film was its treatment of the institution of journalism as a vital organ of a society full of competing and cooperating institutions. The film hardly ever got bogged down in individual personalities. For a film about pedophilia, there was remarkably little moral indignation. And that, in my opinion, is a strength. Like Marty Baron, the film was interested in the system, not the individual. And in a society of complex, interacting systems, journalism is a critical institution. It may not serve to tell you the weather or when movies are playing any more, but it must survive to tell you stories about your community that others don’t want you to know. Let’s just hope we don’t look back and wonder how we didn’t see some of these things coming.