There’s a brief montage in “Spotlight,” a drama about the Boston Globe’s 2002 coverage of sexual abuse within the Catholic Church, that neatly sums up the film’s overriding ethos: After a Globe reporter asks a newsroom librarian for clips regarding a particular story, a sequence of shots portrays the request being fulfilled, as a researcher goes through yellowed newspaper excerpts, cranks balky spools of microfilm, prints out the results, compiles it all in a file and delivers the bundle by way of a rickety basket cart.
By conventional cinematic standards, the sequence is far from thrilling. But within the world that “Spotlight” creates – a world of reporters doggedly doing their jobs with little fanfare or immediate gratification, before Google was the all-knowing behemoth it is today – it’s a soaring ode to minutiae that makes riveting cinema out of journalism’s least dramatic moments.
For Tom McCarthy, who co-wrote and directed “Spotlight,” that montage holds the key to whether his film – and the rigor and attention to detail with which he made it – will succeed or fail with viewers. Noting that his decision to go deep into the daily grind of reporting was “a huge gamble,” he said, “I felt like if (the clips) started to operate at the right level, if the audience was connecting with those, then we really succeeded with the movie.”
So far, it looks like the bet is paying off: “Spotlight” made a triumphant debut earlier this fall at three festivals in Venice, Telluride and Toronto, emerging as a critical favorite and Oscar front-runner. In late November its cast – which includes Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Liev Schreiber – will receive a special ensemble acting citation at New York’s Gotham Awards, an early harbinger of awards-season heat.
Perhaps most encouraging, according to McCarthy’s metric, last weekend “Spotlight” won the audience award at the Middleburg Film Festival in Virginia, suggesting that garden-variety filmgoers find the film just as engrossing as do the journalists watching their profession so painstakingly depicted on screen. (The film takes its title from the name of the Globe’s special investigative reporting unit that was assigned to cover the scandal.)
When “Spotlight” arrives in theaters over the next few weeks it will have a healthy wind at its back. Which isn’t to say that McCarthy and his producers won’t be nursing their fair share of anxiety. Despite the unsensational contours of its storytelling – indeed, precisely because of the filmmaker’s determination to avoid the ginned-up emotionalism and standard-issue plot twists that characterize most examples of the genre – “Spotlight” may be the most risky, audacious movie of the year.
“There are folks who call this movie mainstream, but I feel like the approach was not mainstream at all,” said McCarthy’s co-screenwriter, Josh Singer, when the two visited Washington in September. “A traditional movie generally doesn’t have six protagonists.”
It’s true that, in approach and execution, “Spotlight” has more in common with McCarthy’s roots in independent film (he wrote and directed “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win”) than with “The West Wing” and “Law and Order: SVU,” where Singer got his start. Rather than radical, though, its understatement and methodical tone feel reassuring, like throwbacks to a bygone, more sophisticated age.
Not only does “Spotlight” pay homage to a brand of journalism that, a decade later, is on the brink of extinction, threatened by rapidly shifting economic and technological forces, the movie itself also exemplifies a narrative mode that’s similarly endangered within an industry increasingly oriented toward ante-upping sequels, superheroes and special-effects spectacles.
Although the confluence wasn’t intentional, McCarthy agrees that “Spotlight” portrays a “style of filmmaking and a style of journalism that represent a moment in time. Where we are with that moment in time, I’m not totally sure myself. … It almost feels like the ship has sailed, in both industries. The change is upon us.”
McCarthy didn’t set out to make a sweeping cultural statement in “Spotlight.” After being hired to direct the film by producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Pagon Faust, he enlisted Singer – who wrote “The Fifth Estate,” about Julian Assange – to write a draft. Although the original Globe reporters (played by Ruffalo, McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James in the film) had written about the scandal, they never wrote about their own process; McCarthy and Singer quickly became reporters themselves, interviewing the writers and their editors, poring over old clips, calendars and emails, and eventually finding survivors, lawyers and other witnesses to flesh out the tick-tock of events.
“Almost everybody in the movie you meet, we talked to,” said Singer, who added that it was McCarthy who insisted they keep digging deeper. “He made us work much harder than I ordinarily would have,” he said.
At McCarthy’s suggestion – which Singer initially spurned – they even talked to a victims’ attorney named Eric MacLeish, which led to the filmmakers unearthing their own bombshell: MacLeish told them he had informed the Globe about 20 abusive priests in the early 1990s, but after a brief, buried story, the paper never followed up. The oversight is acknowledged in “Spotlight,” in a startlingly self-critical scene that, like the many stops, starts, wrong turns and dead ends that precede it, gives the lie to narratives that streamline or laughably distort how journalists really work. (“Top Five” and “Trainwreck” to the contrary, this is that rare movie in which a female reporter doesn’t sleep with a source.)
Although “Spotlight” contains its share of dramatic liberties – with settings for certain encounters, as well as time compression – McCarthy was adamant that it hew as closely to possible to historic reality, right down to re-creating the exact dimensions of the Spotlight office. McCarthy’s obsession with accuracy will no doubt inoculate his film to inevitable awards-season sniping, but in “Spotlight,” it takes on the beauty and heft of a crucial aesthetic element.
“It felt true to the spirit of the reporting,” McCarthy explained. “When Josh and I were spending time with these reporters and editors and discussing process, many times we walked out and I said, ‘It’s not that different than our process.’ It’s craft, right? And I think some people in Hollywood underestimate craft, that (it) takes time and development, and that it means something in this culture of the news cycle of the minute.”
Once on board, he added, the actors responded in kind – including Schreiber, who plays Globe editor Marty Baron. “I had Liev emailing me pictures of glasses for two weeks.” (Baron is now The Washington Post’s executive editor.)
“Spotlight” obeys its protagonists’ central tenets of accuracy and self-discipline so thoroughly that it promises to join, if not supplant, the acknowledged classic of the genre: As a paranoid thriller deeply steeped in the politics and culture of the 1970s, “All the President’s Men” made journalism cool for a generation of young reporters eager to become the next Woodward or Bernstein – and maybe be played by Robert Redford or Dustin Hoffman in the ensuing movie.
The effect of “Spotlight,” on the other hand, remains to be seen. Rather than a vehicle for two huge stars, it’s an ensemble piece, in which even the biggest names seem to labor mightily to cede center stage; the mood is less alluring than subdued, its tension created not by shadowy figures in parking garages, but by the steady, drop-by-drop accumulation of facts. If “Spotlight” does inspire young viewers to pursue careers in journalism, the question is whether – and where – those careers even exist.
Both Singer and McCarthy hope that “Spotlight” will raise consciousness about the importance of investigative journalism, especially in local daily papers. “I don’t think the general public really has any sense of what’s happened to the journalism industry in the last 10, 15 years,” McCarthy said. “People say there’s so much media out there, with the Internet and new media, but I don’t think they really understand what professional journalism, institutionally supported journalism, is. And I think it’s in the great interest of many of the other big institutions to make sure that they don’t understand that.”
With a few different words, McCarthy could just as easily be talking about audiences and movies: It’s easy for viewers to take a film like “Spotlight” for granted until they realize just how tenuous its place is within a dumbed-down, Darwinian marketplace. In another era, “Spotlight” would have been a prestige picture released by one of the big Hollywood studios; after signing on to direct, McCarthy watched the project die three times. (“I mean it was dead-dead.”) Even after Ruffalo agreed to co-star, he said, it was still on shaky ground, with distributors giving him the same excuse: “Even though it’s a great read, it doesn’t scream box office.”
If the stakes are high for the characters in “Spotlight,” they’re just as dramatic for a movie that both celebrates and exemplifies the values of solid, un-flashy fundamentals. The fact that “Spotlight” has an all-but-assured pole position in the upcoming Oscar race will help mightily in the battle for public awareness.
In the meantime, McCarthy, his collaborators and executives at Open Road, the film’s distributor, will be checking ticket sales early and often this opening weekend. That’s when they’ll know whether, as a portrait of a profession and a way of making movies, “Spotlight” is an elegy or a defiant line in the sand in the face of overwhelming odds.