Journalism isn't an inherently cinematic profession. After all, nailing down a story, researching the details, and hashing out a piece doesn't exactly lend itself to a dramatic viewing experience. Those elements can be employed as seasoning on top of a film's structure, but it's rare that they can sustain themselves when they're asked to be the film's structure. Like Zodiac and All the President's Men before it, Spotlight is a bold exception, managing to spin an engrossing yarn of a narrative out of the journalistic process.
The story follows "Spotlight," a branch of the Boston Globe that focuses on long-term investigative pieces, and their real-life efforts to uncover the widespread pattern of sexual molestation of children within the Catholic Church in 2001. Spurred on by the arrival of new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his team (Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'Arcy James) set forth on interviewing alleged victims and lawyers in past settlement cases in order to get to the bottom of this institutional corruption. Spotlight fights against any kind of assumptions one would make when approaching a film about this story. It's a movie about the grind of journalists, but it's absolutely riveting; an investigation into sexual abuse in the Catholic church that ends up being one of the most crowd-pleasing films of the year.
Most of that comes from writer/director Thomas McCarthy's lively script, which he co-wrote with Josh Singer. He exhibits the same terrific ear for dialogue that he did in previous gems like The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win. Spotlight is full of little conversational touches that you rarely ever hear in movies, but happen all the time in real life. And McCarthy knows how to move the story along too. There's a lean forward momentum to the film, and as the investigation just keeps cracking open wider, the audience is right there with the characters, marveling at every introduction of an additional piece of damning evidence.
There's an authenticity on display that makes it feel like a love letter to journalism, maybe even the last full breath of print media. Little details spring out about the state of the Globe, its relation to the competition, and the painstaking steps that go into carving out a story. We see characters running around to procure important documents, attempting to follow leads to the very end of the line, and scribbling notes furiously on a pad as new information is revealed to them. This is a film about process, which sounds dry -- and McCarthy films it with a clear, unfussy visual sensibility -- but that's only because he knows the story is so compelling and the writing has enough inertia to carry itself.
That's not to say that Spotlight isn't interesting visually. McCarthy makes a variety of smart choices that let us know that stakes of this story, strictly from the way he frames scenes. Just look at the way every street shot of Boston shows how tight-knit this community is. We get a sense of how this scandal could exist just below the surface for so long, why even after all that has happened, people are willing to let most of it get swept under the rug. We see the way churches loom over every street; the power of the church is evident in almost every frame. That's pretty much Spotlight's modus operandi, it's so restrained and controlled that it never goes for any boldfaced declarations. There are no forced stakes or sentimentality, just subtle, effective drama. It's an important story that never puffs its chest out about it, which is what makes it feel even more important.