Spotlight is many terrific things, but flashy isn’t one of them. Based on the real-life tale of The Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation into the Catholic Church’s systematic practice of covering up child abuse, director Tom McCarthy’s stellar film (in theaters Nov. 6) channels its subjects in style, tone and attitude. A precise, clear-sighted, and thorough account of the scrupulous toil that went into creating this titanic exposé – which, as a textual coda elucidates, led to discoveries of similar abuses in cities around the world – the film is a celebration of fearless journalism, a portrait of irrepressible curiosity and courage, and a tribute to moral rigor that, like its characters, believes in the noble virtue of speaking truth to power.
McCarthy’s tale focuses on the Globe’s “Spotlight” team, a four-person crew comprised of reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Tasked with producing long-form, in-depth pieces, “Spotlight” is already in jeopardy at film’s outset thanks to the hiring of new top editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), formerly of The New York Times, whose arrival, in light of the paper’s dwindling subscriptions and competition from online outlets, brings with it threats of budgetary cuts. That Baron is a Jew in a community and newsroom mostly filled with Catholics only further sets him apart, and marks him as an interloper of questionable trustworthiness.
Baron’s outsider-ness, however, also makes him a kindred spirit to Robinson and his “Spotlight” squad, all of whom are lapsed Catholics who find their standing in the city shaken by the discovery of a wide-ranging conspiracy perpetrated by the Church to both hide pedophiliac priests and to quietly settle out of court with their victims. That bombshell story begins with the passionate contentions of a lone “survivor,” Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), previously dismissed as a quack with a grudge by Robinson’s boss, deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). After hearing Saviano’s claims that thirteen abusive priests are operating within Boston, Robinson and company’s interest is piqued, and they begin digging – which leads to fruitful talks with a psychology expert on the matter (Richard Jenkins) and a lawyer representing numerous victims (Stanley Tucci), which motivates them to keep digging. And then, to dig a little deeper still.
Spotlight renders this excavation in meticulous detail, so that even as it (echoing David Fincher’s Zodiac) mires itself in enough names, dates, places and figures to fill multiple filing cabinets, it remains a lucid beast defined by sharp chronological cause-effect dynamics. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer’s script peels back layer after layer to reveal uglier secrets and nastier deeds, and it always assumes the point-of-view of its protagonists so that their discoveries are, simultaneously, our own. As such, it provides a stirring, up-close-and-personal sense of what journalism, at its finest, is: the tedious researching, the sifting through directories and files, the trips to the courthouse, the pavement-pounding neighborhood reportage, the uncomfortable chats with wary interviewees, the competition with rival publications, and the long hours spent talking, arguing, yelling, fact-checking, re-fact-checking, and writing, writing, writing until you’ve got the damn thing right.
Spotlight depicts the nitty-gritty of professional newspaper work in unfussy, straightforward compositions that remain trained, in protracted takes, on characters’ faces as they engage in debate, on hands as they pore through documents and scribble notes, and on bodies in purposeful motion. McCarthy’s numerous tracking shots follow his characters as they move through cubicle-lined office corridors, up and down stairs, and around street corners – a subtle means of visualizing their constant pursuit of facts, sources, and the big-picture story, not to mention a way of suggesting the serpentine nature of their quest. Like Robinson, Rezendes, Pfeiffer and Carroll, the film moves fast, and forward, until its scope expands to include not only a few wayward priests, but also an institutional system driven to protect itself from disrepute, even at the expense of the very parishioners it was supposed to comfort and protect.
Far from a narrow workplace drama, Spotlight takes time to address how the Church uses its deep roots in Boston’s heavily religious community to hush up its dastardly conduct. Yet genuine suspense is generated less from the insinuated threats levied at Globe reporters by Church leaders than by the possibility that Robinson, or Bradlee Jr., or someone else at the paper will lose their nerve before getting to the bottom of this rancid well. As it barrels toward the publication of the explosive feature, which points a figure at an astounding 87 priests as well as Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), and whose completion is temporarily delayed by coverage of the September 11th World Trade Center attacks, the film becomes something like a moral thriller – one in which danger isn’t posed by malevolent sex offenders or intimidating lawyers, but by the notion that cowardice or expediency (or, for that matter, reckless fury) might triumph over integrity and decency.
In a late outburst by Rezendes – embodied by Ruffalo with a clipped verbal cadence that speaks to his no-nonsense tenacity – Spotlight gives voice to the incensed outrage wrought by the Church’s behavior. Yet like the groundbreaking story eventually published by the Globe (and the hundreds that soon followed), the film channels that anger into methodically rational, exhaustive censure. It’s a faithful, and reverent, illustration of the way in which exacting, nose-to-the-grindstone old-school journalism is a tool used by the people, for the people, to right wrongs perpetrated by those in positions of authority. And yet even more than that, as felt in the steadfast performances of its uniformly excellent all-star cast, it’s a rousing portrait of the paradigm-altering power afforded by that greatest ideal: determined, inquisitive, ethical intellectualism.