Even though "Spotlight" is meant to be an inspirational tale about the power of journalism to speak truth to power -- changing the world in swift and decisive ways that politicians and billionaires can't -- there's an unspoken side to it that's morose and devastatingly nostalgic.
The story of social upheaval the movie captures, as a team of Boston Globe investigative reporters uncovers a global conspiracy to shield Catholic priests from facing legal repercussions for molesting children, is less and less likely to be repeated as newspapers continue to swirl the drain.
Journalism as we knew it at the turn of the 21st century, in which the movie is set, is no longer as powerful an institution today. As newspaper staffs have shrunk and corporate interests continue to tighten their stranglehold and influence on content in all media, reporters have less time, resources and incentives to tilt the windmills of fat, happy interests that move power players around like pawns. When your mandate as a journalist is to crank out a viral post that will contend with the likes of Buzzfeed and Gawker, you no longer have as much ability to spend weeks wearing out shoe leather to track down sources and sift through documents that may or may not lead to paydirt.
"Spotlight," for better and mostly worse, becomes the bookend to "All the President's Men" in the era when journalists casually wielded enough power to change the world. Clever muckrakers will always find ways to subvert authority, seek the hidden reality and pull back the curtain from the wizard, but their victories will be more sporadic and less institutionalized. Through technology, innovation and obsession, journalists of today have to find new ways to erupt change at the level of their predecessors.
Even in the lasts days of investigative journalism disco, the story at the focus of "Spotlight" very nearly didn't happen. It took dogged determination from the likes of reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (best supporting actresss Oscar nominee Rachel McAdams) and editors Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) to disrupt office and city politics and wake up greater Boston -- and eventually the world -- of the relentless pattern of abuse and cover-up that had gone on in a hush-hush manner for decades.
The movie's boldest character is its doubting Thomas, high-ranking editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), who seeks to derail every effort of the team to advance the story, before eventually succumbing and coming to their aid, at the risk of his own career and social standing.
Director Tom McCarthy ("The Station Agent," "Win Win") knows he has a story that tells itself, so he hands it off to his capable writer and cast and gets out of the way. The movie rolls out with the staccato rhythm of a newspaper story, with each revelation piling on the previous to buttress the inverted pyramid, building to a stunning pinnacle.
I can't for the life of me tell why McAdams is up for an Oscar for her bare-bones role, because she -- nor any other member of the cast -- does anything to stand out. There are no cheap grabs at emotion or efforts to grandstand. "Spotlight" earns its best picture nomination through sheer gruntwork, and distinguishes itself from the pack for how seemingly effortless it is.
"Spotlight" is a tough and firm movie -- thorough and fierce. It's a heartening look back at what journalism was once capable of, and makes you yearn with hope for the future of an industry in flux.