Film review: Spotlight

David Gritten / 27 January 2016

Saga film critic David Gritten recommends Spotlight, a gritty, realistic account of newspaper journalists.

There’s a resolutely old-fashioned quality about Spotlight, which lends it an air of both authenticity and integrity. It’s a film about journalism, and one of the great ones – the best I can remember since All The President’s Men.

It’s set in 2001 in Boston, home to the Globe, a major American newspaper. It boasts a four-person investigative team called Spotlight, which can take up to a year to break an in-depth, important, complicated story - not the most cost-effective form of journalism in an industry that was even feeling the pinch 15 years ago. So when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives at the Globe as the new editor, the Spotlight staff reflexively fear for their futures. 

But Baron, very much an outsider to the mostly Boston-born Globe staff, turns out to be a good guy. Hearing about strong suggestions of sex abuse among local Catholic priests, he urges the team to go after the story.

In that city, such a story was a tough nut to crack. The Catholic Church had traditionally wielded power, however subtly, in Boston’s business, political and legal worlds, and ordinary Bostonians, most of them Catholic, tended to give the Church the benefit of the doubt, allowing any of its misdeeds to be swept under the carpet.

Still, the quartet tackled their uphill task with painstaking dedication. Michael Keaton is first-rate as team leader Walter Robinson, a veteran newsman sufficiently well-regarded to move in influential circles within the city. His colleagues include Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), a smart, empathetic woman who can extract the truth from unwilling sources while remaining kindly; and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), her polar opposite - tough, confrontational, with a prize-fighter’s personality, totally unafraid to make waves or to bully the truth out of someone.

Related: Michael Keaton talks about his role in Spotlight

Much of the Spotlight’s efforts involved routine work – perusing documents, doggedly following leads and double-checking facts. Director Tom McCarthy makes these unglamorous endeavours feel tense and gripping, never more so than an extended sequence when Ruffalo’s Rezendes tries to outwit city bureaucrats to get his hands on copies of unsealed court records. Rarely has drudgery looked quite so gallant.

I can vouch for how authentic it looks and feels, having worked in a big-city American newsroom for six years back in the ‘80s. It all comes flooding back – the sombre colour schemes, the rickety office furniture, the camaraderie between reporters and the tendency to self-importance of some of them.

This is an outstanding workplace film for intelligent grown-ups, one that richly deserves its Oscar nominations and its status as a front-runner for best film. It shines a light on a pattern of sickening behaviour without exploiting the horror; there’s never a single vulnerable child on camera.

And in addition, Spotlight functions as an elegy to golden era of journalism – when it was a proper job, practised by getting out of the office, meeting and questioning people, rather than staying stuck behind a screen in the office, lazily resorting to Wikipedia to ‘confirm’ facts.

Read David Gritten's piercing film reviews every month in Saga Magazine. Subscribe to the print edition or download the digital edition today.

The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.