Spotlights are created to push darkness aside and illuminate what might otherwise pass without notice. The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Spotlight section does the journalistic equivalent. Its small team of dogged reporters digs into events that secretive citizens, stonewalling politicians and highhanded clergy hope to bury.
The heroes of “Spotlight,” a thrilling fact-based exposé of shocking abuse, conspiracy and denial, are three reporters and three editors (a brilliant ensemble cast of Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Michael Keaton, John Slattery and Liev Schreiber).
Set in the early 2000s, the film shows two formidable Boston power structures in conflict with each other — the city’s outstanding newspaper and the Catholic Church. Without sensational exaggeration, writer/director Tom McCarthy presents the clash like a nail-biting spy thriller.
His film is a major achievement. You don’t need to be a news junkie to admire such sleek, adult entertainment.
The scandal in focus is the decades-long coverup of sexual child abuse by the clergy of the church. It was a long-running practice of church leaders to whitewash pederast priests confronted by their victims, creating settlements that sealed the evidence in permanently closed records. The rare priests who were tried in public were simply “bad apples” according to the archdiocese. Connecting the dots of the large, ongoing coverup for pervasive clerical abuse was difficult, as most of those dots had been carefully erased.
The smart script shows how tribal loyalties can hide secrets, making them widely known but never discussed. As Spotlight’s editor Walter Robinson, Keaton describes himself as Boston “born and raised.” As is most of the city’s power structure and population, a community of Irish Catholic cops, editors, lawyers and judges. An almost intuitive understanding kept victims’ families quiet, avoiding shame and scandal over tragedies that occurred virtually before their eyes.
McCarthy creates a tense duel of wits between the Globe reporters and the fixers who hope to disable them. We see the newspaper team toiling through the night to pin down the story, the gruntwork, the workload, the pursuit of phone calls and documents and interviews, the demands of a newsroom where there are so many things going on. We see how mundane but difficult it is to dig through a bewildering informational haystack for the truth, and how adrenaline can surge as they chase it and get it.
McCarthy gives us the only film since “All the President’s Men” that actually captures what it is that reporters do all day. And in doing so, he shows how professionalism and human empathy can coexist. As reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, McAdams sits down for coffee with a guy who was sexually abused time and again as a child by his priest, a scene touching beyond description. As their talk sinks in, it takes us deeper into her soul than any glance at her mundane private life.
We don’t learn much about the newspaper staff beyond their work, but that tells us almost everything. Especially when they admit that facts revealing the scope of abuse came to the paper years earlier, yet no one there grasped the story they told. Newspapers are institutions that make mistakes, and “Spotlight” owns up to those flaws honestly.
The acting here is beyond praise, especially when the characters are complex. As the Globe’s soft-spoken new editor Martin Baron, who suggests another pass at the story, Schreiber gives us a man of integrity without warmth. As a lawyer for victims of sexual abuse, the ever-flawless Stanley Tucci combines obnoxious self-righteousness with a scrupulous commitment to justice. Even Howard Shore’s low-key all-piano score and Masanobu Takayanagi’s crisp cinematography add polished finishing touches to a well-crafted landmark.