There’s no gunplay. No meet-cute. No car chases. No explosions. And the closest it comes to an action scene is when a character rushes to a courthouse before closing. Hardly the stuff of Mission: Impossible.
But Spotlight, chronicling The Boston Globe’s groundbreaking and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2002 exposé of pedophile priests that continues to send shockwaves through the Catholic Church, is a riveting ensemble procedural drama that turns recent history into crackerjack cinema. Simply put, it’s one of the best films of the year.
It’s Boston 2001, and the Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), fresh from stints at The New York Times and The Miami Herald. He has no ties to the area, and is single, Jewish and not a sports fan. That puts him at odds with much of the newsroom and the city, where everyone seems to have loyalty to their deep Beantown roots, the Red Sox and the Catholic Church.
Yet it’s precisely his outsider status that prompts him to see old news with fresh eyes. He asks in an editors’ meeting about a recent column that had appeared in the Globe concerning the case of a pedophile priest from years prior. Baron wonders if there might be more to it, something more systemic.
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The other editors, including Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), downplay it, but Baron is insistent. Ultimately, the topic gets turned over to Robinson’s hard-charging, investigative Spotlight team of reporters — Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — who begin to mint definitive answers from doubt.
They discover that not only are there pedophile priests who remain unpunished but that they enjoyed the protection of the church, which would shuttle them from parish to parish once their abuses became known. It was an accusation that dropped like a bomb.
As much of Spotlight consists of people talking — in newsrooms, courtrooms and barrooms — it could have been a very static experience. But Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, The Visitor, Win Win), working from a script he co-wrote with Josh Singer, maintains a sense of movement so the film never feels like a staged reading.
He’s aided by the actors, especially Ruffalo, whose Rezendes is a nervy, volatile ball of intensity; he’s the guy trying to make it to the courthouse in time.
There’s only a snatch of his back story provided — he wears a wedding ring but lives alone in a rundown apartment while he and his wife work things out — but it’s enough to know that it probably was his dedication to his job that was dooming his marriage to failure. Yet it’s that same dedication that lends him his gumshoe perseverance.
The supporting actors, especially those playing the still emotionally wounded survivors, are heartbreaking.
Yet McCarthy doesn’t just point the finger at higher-ups at the Church. There’s enough blame to go around, from the Globe itself — which had evidence but turned a blind eye in preceding years — to all those who knew something wasn’t quite right but said nothing.
Ultimately, Spotlight has the throwback feel of a ’70s film — All the President’s Men being the obvious inspiration — but it never comes across as contrived.
Speaking of throwbacks, McCarthy gets the feel of an early-2000s newsroom exactly right (full disclosure: I worked for Baron when he was at the Herald), from the rumpled khaki-casual attire and the cluttered workspaces to the “primitive” technology — microfiche, phones that are just phones, a billboard proclaiming “AOL Anywhere” — and the vague sense that the Internet is changing things.
He doesn’t make a big deal out of the latter, nor does he explicitly take on the wider issue of how stories like these will be covered in the future if investigative staffs cease to exist. But it’s all there, like background noise.
At the beginning of Spotlight, a title card proclaims “based on actual events,” a tactic many films use to manufacture authenticity even if it’s never earned. Here, it feels absolutely right.
Exclusive: AMC NorthPark, Dallas; Angelika Dallas; Cinemark West Plano
Director: Tom McCarthy
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams
Rated: R (strong language, including sexual references)
Running time: 128 min.