Spotlight is a message movie - not often a promising foundation for either entertainment or art. But Spotlight succeeds where lesser message movies fail because of its unerring sense of direction in illuminating the source of evil in a complex social network. The pedophilia rampant among the Catholic clergy in Boston some fifteen years ago was hidden for decades before the Boston Globe broke the story. Spotlight hammers home the point that these were not just isolated cases, but part of an institutional disease that affected the Church at the highest levels of its hierarchy.
That institutional disease, moreover, was not confined to the Church, but had ramifications throughout Boston - indeed, the Globe itself had participated in burying the story years earlier. The dots were there to be connected long before the Globe published the facts, had anyone wanted to look - but no one did. Priests molesting choirboys? Playing strip poker with and soliciting oral sex from twelve-year-olds? Nobody even wanted to think about it.
Mark Ruffalo plays the reporter whose diligence and determination to uncover the truth ultimately succeeds against all odds. The reporter has just the right mix of street smarts and scruffy chutzpah to make all the pieces of the puzzle fall into place. Ruffalo is a master of the puzzled glance, ingratiating body language, quick repartee and other accouterments of finesse as a maturing actor.
Michael Keaton plays the reporter's boss, somewhat older and shrewder, but equally determined to get the story and to get it right. Keaton's performance in Birdman was so indelible that it takes the viewer a while to shake off that association and see him in another role. Here his role is more cerebral than emotional, but he gets the mix just right. Together, he and Ruffalo sustain the whole action of the film.
As is so often the case, it is the script, more than any other single element, that makes this movie fly. Screenwriters Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer cleverly inserted into the story the character of a psychiatrist with deep insight into the psychology of the pedophile priests. Emotional immaturity was a hallmark of the deviant members of the clergy, said the psychiatrist, coupled with the unrealistic demands of celibacy. No doubt the distribution of emotional intelligence is bell-shaped among priests as well as in any other profession, and the pedophiles were clustered at the short end of the curve.
Director McCarthy pulls it all together cogently, with clarity, qualities we admire as well in print journalism. He has turned the story of a news story into compelling drama, with a pacing and a depth that surpass many conventional dramas. This is one of those rare films we can't figure out what to admire the most: the characters and story portrayed, or those who portray them.