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5 ways Spotlight turns the process of journalism into riveting drama

The new movie follows the true story of the Boston Globe breaking open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal.

The Spotlight team members gather with their editor to hash out the story.
The Spotlight team members gather with their editor to hash out the story.
Open Road Films
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

One of those Hollywood axioms that has passed into show business lore is director Howard Hawks's famous description of a good movie: three great scenes and no bad ones.



You could quibble with that definition. There are plenty of good movies with at least one terrible scene (Psycho, with its too-long, too-expository concluding monologue comes to mind), and there are certainly movies that eventually become more than the sum of their just-good-enough parts. Yet I can't help but hear a little counter in my head dinging along as I watch a film I'm really enjoying, tallying up the moments I love while I hope it doesn't disappoint me.

That was my experience with the new newspaper drama Spotlight, which chronicles the true story of the intrepid Boston Globe reporters who broke open the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals through dogged reporting, hard work, and just a touch of luck. Early on, the film did something that made me realize I was in good hands — and from then on, it didn't let me down.

Needless to say, you should see Spotlight. This kind of meat-and-potatoes ensemble drama is rarely made so well (or at all) nowadays, and the ensemble cast is top-notch, with great, unshowy direction from Tom McCarthy. It's one of the best movies of 2015.

Here are five scenes that illustrate why Spotlight is in a class by itself.

1) The movie's villain isn't its villain

Because Spotlight is set in the newspaper industry in 2001, you may have some preconceived notions about what's going to happen as you sit down to watch the film. The reporters — who will sometimes spend months and months working on a single story (as they do with the sex abuse scandal) — will be racing ahead of corporate bean counters who are more worried about the paper's fraying dotted line than anything else.

The movie even sets you up for this! When new Globe editor Marty Baron (a reserved Liev Schreiber) takes a dinner with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), who heads up the paper's "Spotlight" team, Baron says the usual boilerplate stuff about making sure the paper's financials add up. Instantly, I groaned a little. It appeared that Spotlight was going to portray him as a villain, the guy who would constantly fret over how much time the Spotlight team spent on one thing.

But shortly thereafter, McCarthy and his co-screenwriter Josh Singer set my mind at ease. Baron attends his first morning news meeting with the Globe editors. He's seen a column in the paper about a pedophile priest, and he's wondering why the paper hasn't done more to cover this story. He sets the Spotlight team on it, and in that moment, McCarthy and Singer have accomplished a very important goal: They've gotten you to realize that nobody in this movie should be underestimated. Everybody at the Globe wants to do good work — even those who would be villains in lesser movies — and anyone can have a great idea.

2) The Spotlight team interviews victims

Spotlight cast
The Spotlight team goes over some new data.
Open Road Films

In a sequence where reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) interview two separate survivors of sexual abuse, McCarthy and editor Tom McArdle present a terrific example of how to let scenes breathe, so that they never become too overpowering. The survivors' stories are horrifying, but just when one becomes too hard to take, McCarthy and McArdle switch up the setting or cut to the other survivor talking.

Good editing is less about lots and lots of cutting than it is about knowing how to properly build a story's rhythm and flow. It would be so easy for these sequences to overpower the rest of the film, but Spotlight lets them be a focal point while never losing sight of how Michael and Sacha give their interview subjects room to open up further, to feel comfortable telling their stories. In general, Spotlight succeeds where this year's earlier journalism drama, Truth, miserably failed, because it understands there is no ultimate glory in this work — it's simply something that has to be done, and it can be done well or done poorly.

The overall effect increases both the audience's faith in Michael and Sacha to get this story right and the sense we have that if they don't, the result will be a terrible miscarriage of justice. What happened to the two men they're interviewing was hushed up for far too long. By bringing it to light, the Spotlight team is living up to that old journalism maxim of afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted.

3) A single visual underlines the story's economic themes better than anything else

Around the film's midpoint, McCarthy cuts to the exterior of the Globe building, where a billboard for America Online rises above the parking lot. It's a great visual joke — when's the last time you used America Online? — but it's also a neat way to underline the increasing financial pressures the newspaper industry faced as the millennium turned.

One of Spotlight's best decisions is not to overplay this tension. It knows that we know print media has gone through a trying time, and it knows it doesn't have to have its characters constantly remind us of this fact. It's careful to keep this particular story point in the background, but every so often, it nods to the market pressures that will increasingly drive newspapers to focus more on their bottom lines.

4) The movie doesn't overplay its big Oscar clip

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo in Spotlight.
Michael Keaton (foreground) and Mark Ruffalo star in Spotlight.
Open Road Films

You've seen enough Oscar hopefuls by now to identify the scene that will feature in a given film's clips package at the awards ceremony. It usually involves the lead actor tearing up and/or shouting, emphasizing the main points of the movie and trying to ask why nobody cares about the important things. Moments like this are a dime a dozen, and they're so, so easy to do poorly, to make too big or too self-important.

Well, Spotlight has one of these, and manages to underplay it nicely. McCarthy's greatest strength as a director may be directing actors, and when Ruffalo sinks his teeth into a big speech about how it's time to move forward with the story, about how the survivors of this abuse deserve some modicum of justice, even if it's just the names of their abusers printed in the newspaper, McCarthy wisely prevents him from going fully over the top.

The director holds on Ruffalo's face in close-up, letting one of our finest actors do most of his emoting with his eyes and expressions. Yes, he gets to raise his voice, and yes, he gets to look like he's on the verge of tears, but he never once pushes too far. It's tough to modulate a performance like this, but Ruffalo and McCarthy, working in tandem, keep things neatly in check. That goes for every other performer in the movie, too. They're all pitch perfect.

5) Spotlight's final shot is as perfect a summation of what it's about as that of any movie this year

Spotlight boasts one of the best ensemble casts in a long, long while.
Open Road Films

The central theme of Spotlight is that doing the work is valuable. Doing the work is necessary. Collecting all the facts is the only way to ensure that justice is done, that those who have suffered will see some small recompense.

I'm not going to spoil the final shot of the film, but it's a perfect summation of this idea, right down to the last line of dialogue (spoken by Keaton). Spotlight is, broadly speaking, a screenplay and performance movie, meaning that it doesn't really need flashy direction to make its point. It's all there on the page and in the actors' faces.

But McCarthy's understated, classical style services the story perfectly nonetheless. And in Spotlight's final moments, he finds a perfect way to underline that this one story of abuse might have been printed and had a seismic impact, but so long as the world is filled with injustice, the work goes on.

Spotlight is currently playing in limited release and will expand throughout the country in weeks to come. Check if it's playing in your area here.

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