Shades of Woodward and Bernstein, the based-on-a-true story Spotlight (trailer) follows the actions of an investigative journalism team way out on a limb in Catholic Boston. They’re not just in pursuit of the story of clergy child sex abuse, their mission is also to expose the shameful cover-up of abusive priests, and the institutional shortcomings that allowed them to carry on. Unlike today’s social media blowhards (and political candidates), they can’t just make accusations; they need actual proof.
A nice coincidence is the support the reporters receive from another Ben Bradlee—this one Ben Bradlee, Jr., played by John Slattery, who never has a good hair day. Like his father in the Watergate era, he lets the reporters run, even though he’s initially skeptical they’ll come up with anything.
Crusading journalists are a social corrective we have largely lost in the era of declining newsroom budgets and staffs and the competition for sound bites and snarky bits. The reporters in this film reporters fill the job description, pushed by a fierce desire to expose the truth. Sometimes, of course, that leads to more truth than they might desire—closer to home truths of different kinds. They’re after the kind of story that wins Pulitzers (and did), but more important to the journalists, they know it’s an important story for the affected families and a sobering story about how evil can hide in plain sight.
The principals include the Boston Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and his investigative “Spotlight” team, led by Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton of the pursed lips), with reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, who sticks his head out like a turtle, so eager is he to grab onto the story), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachael McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James). The actors do a fine job, as do Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup in smaller roles.
As written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer and directed by McCarthy, the film is a “magnificent nerdy process movie—a tour de force of filing cabinet cinema,” says Justin Chang in Variety. Yet it is never uninteresting. Even better, it is never sanctimonious.
The film’s tension comes from fear that the Church will find out what the Globe is up to and exert its considerable influence to put a stop to it or—and almost worse from the reporters’ point of view—the Boston Herald will scoop them. If they can delay publication until they have proof top Church leaders knew about the abuse, it would be impossible for them to persist in the “few bad apples” claim.
In sum, “A taut story, well-told,” says Jim Lane in the Sacramento News & Review.
Rotten Tomatoes critics rating: 98%; audiences 96%.