There are only so many times the mortgage can be refinanced on the Fourth Estate; it’s no surprise that print journalism is dying in our increasingly digital world. This is a fact that an old newspaperman like myself laments every time I read (on the Internet) that another metropolitan paper will be printing its last. Now the rest of you can share in my misery, thanks to director and cowriter Tom McCarthy’s taut, superb drama Spotlight, which illuminates the people who make this fading institution great.
In 2003, The Boston Globe’s Spotlight Team—the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States—won a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its “courageous, comprehensive coverage” of the Roman Catholic Church’s sexual-abuse scandal. The painful scandal itself is all too familiar to Bostonians who followed the four-person unit’s exhaustive yearlong reporting, but McCarthy and cowriter Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) sensed that there was an equally compelling story behind the stories. And indeed, Spotlight, which focuses on the work done by The Globe’s Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and the rest of his team—Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—might just be the best film about investigative journalism since Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 Oscar winner All the President’s Men.
Keaton uses every weathered crease in his brow as Robby, who beats himself up for not putting the pieces together sooner on a story that’s been hiding in plain sight for years in a community that deliberately looked the other way. But as The Globe’s quiet new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), points out, “We spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark. But sometimes, we turn on the light.”
Keaton, who’s come off of a well-deserved Oscar nomination for last year’s Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), delivers equally strong work here, but he’s matched by Ruffalo, whose Rezendes has put so much of himself into his job that he’s separated from his (unseen) wife and living in a “shithole,” as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (Boston’s John Slattery, late of AMC’s Mad Men) correctly calls it when he drops by for a beer.
Rounding out the talented actors portraying the Spotlight Team are relative newcomer d’Arcy James, who holds his own as Carroll, a man who discovers an accused priest lives just down the street from his family, and McAdams, whose Pfeiffer may have arrived at The Globe from Ohio, but whose Boston bona-fides include a mother who hails from Southie and a devout Catholic grandmother she’s wary of telling what she’s working on.
Baron, a self-described outsider, makes the Spotlight Team’s story The Globe’s priority on his first day there, which prompts a common refrain he’s met with throughout the film: “You want to sue the Church?!” After all, the paper has a lot to lose, since 53 percent of their readership is Catholic. However, they also have plenty of integrity, something that’s in woefully low supply at lesser papers.
McCarthy, who credits Sidney Lumet’s 1982 Paul Newman picture The Verdict as an influence on this film, clearly has learned from that Oscar-nominated drama. As reporters with little more than dogged determination, the unironed shirts on their backs and the cups of cold coffee in their hands dig through old files, chase down leads, wear down sources and deliver enough dialogue to fill five superhero films, what could have been a deathly dull procedural instead becomes thrilling. He infuses these tropes with an urgency that feels so fresh, in a story that feels so timely, that you’re almost shocked to see the Spotlight Team break to congregate around a TV in The Globe’s newsroom as the horrors of 9/11 unfold, reminding you of how long ago this modern-feeling movie is set. “This is nuts,” Carroll says as the Twin Towers burn. “Two days ago, I told my wife we were working on the biggest story on the planet.”
Though their local story temporarily moves to the back burner, it soon grows even more in scope. Rather than limit the story by exposing individual priests, they step back and look at the bigger picture, focusing on the entire corrupt system—a decadeslong shell game that found Cardinal Bernard Francis Law (Len Cariou) covering up his priests’ misconduct by moving the accused from parish to parish despite repeated allegations of molestation. Quite by accident, the Spotlight Team discovers that “Sick Leave” is an official designation the Church uses for priests who have been reassigned after being accused of sexual abuse—but one of many terms used by the diocese. “Anything but ‘rape,’ ” Pfeiffer observes, with anger in her voice.
Ultimately, what elevates Spotlight above the pictures devoted to so-called superheroes currently clogging cineplexes is McCarthy’s refusal to deal in a black-and-white worldview of good versus evil. Not even The Globe itself is free from criticism, demonstrating a key quality that McCarthy shares with his subject: integrity.
Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff, Michael Cyril Creighton, Jimmy LeBlanc, Eileen Padua, Michael Countryman, Len Cariou and Liev Schreiber. Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Directed by Tom McCarthy. At Boston Common, Coolidge Corner, Fenway, Kendall Square and in the suburbs.