Spotlight, director Tom McCarthy’s superb drama about The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of sexual abuse, is a low-key, level-headed movie about a sensational, hot-button subject. The film has already been compared to All the President’s Men, Alan J. Pakula’s Oscar-winning 1976 re-creation of The Washington Post’s exposé of the Watergate scandal, which resulted in the toppling of a president. Both are about journalists chasing after reluctant witnesses and trying to report on crimes no one wanted to talk about.
But Spotlight is the better, more compelling movie, because the story doesn’t hinge on a lucky break (Deep Throat) that also happened to be highly cinematic and because the focus extends beyond two star reporters, a reflection of the extensive teamwork required for news institutions to produce their best work. The movie takes its title from what The Globe called its investigative unit, a four-person squad that specialized in deep dives supervised by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). His staff of reporters — Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — are initially suspicious of the paper’s new editor, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has come from the Miami Herald, where reporters were accustomed to free access to state and local records courtesy of Florida’s Sunshine Law.
No such law exists in Massachusetts. But immediately upon arriving at The Globe, Baron (a man of few but precise words, uncannily well-played by Schreiber), who has been reading up on Boston, assigns the Spotlight staff to dig into the case records involving a defrocked priest accused of habitually molesting young boys. The reporters, who are all Catholic, nod and sigh and amongst themselves write off Baron’s assignment as a waste of time, an attempt by a newcomer to create a big splash (in one scene, Robinson remarks that Baron is Jewish and doesn’t even like baseball; you can’t get more un-Boston than that).
But the reporters carry out their assignment, the way dutiful journalists must, and quickly discover with equal parts horror and fascination that Baron is on to something. Spotlight, which McCarthy co-wrote with Josh Singer, doesn’t canonize its protagonists: They are talented but ordinary people doing their jobs, and a huge part of the pleasure of this engrossing movie comes in watching the process of work being done. Unlike David Fincher did with his masterpiece Zodiac, another nuts-and-bolts procedural, McCarthy doesn’t inject much visual style into the picture: The movie remains as calm and clear-headed as its characters, whether they’re digging through old news clips (the story is set in 2001, before newspapers had fully computerized their databases) or poring over catalogs and directories, trying to match names with dates.
The work is dull and laborious, but the film makes it fascinating anyway, because you understand what the stakes are and what the journalists are searching for (the movie is a masterful example of clear, precise storytelling). And the deeper the reporters get into their investigation, the more incredible their findings become. Spotlight is peppered with great supporting performances (John Slattery plays The Globe’s amusingly pragmatic deputy managing editor, Ben Bradlee Jr., and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup stand out as two radically different lawyers who have stakes in the investigation). The lead ensemble shines, too: The actors capture the efficient, shorthand communication that exists between reporters and editors who have worked together for awhile, and the movie is able to fill us in on the private lives of the journalists just enough for us to get a handle on who they are without distracting us from their primary assignment.
Although it’s a work of fiction, Spotlight feels like a piece of investigative journalism, a scrupulously researched story that refuses to succumb to any sort of Hollywood grandstanding (as Rezendes, Ruffalo gets a fiery, Oscar-reel speech that, in the context of the film, turns out to be completely misguided and wrong). Even if you’re familiar with The Globe’s reportage on the scandal, which wound up leading to momentous consequences, the film is peppered with countless little beats that put the larger story into context: The reporters’ reaction to Sept. 11, which temporarily forced them to abandon their investigation, or Carroll’s realization that one of the priests suspected of abuse lives in his neighborhood. Spotlight doesn’t wallow in the glory of old-media ethics or lament the ongoing death of newspapers, although the movie quietly celebrates the rigorous standards of journalism that are increasingly dissipating in this era of click-baiting and Twitter outrage. This is simply a great story exceedingly well told, through characters whose fingers are perpetually stained with ink.
Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup.
Director: Tom McCarthy.
Screenwriters: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy.
An Open Road Films release. Running time: 128 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual references, adult themes. In Miami-Dade: Sunset Place, Aventura, South Beach; in Palm Beach: Cinemark Boca.