“Spotlight” is the best movie about journalism since “All the President’s Men.”
Director Tom McCarthy and a cast of master underplayers deliver the tale of the Watergate of our times. It’s a newspaper picture, a great one, about the shoe leather, the door knocking, the cold calls, the dogged days of research, the persuasion and the courage it took for four intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe to uncover the vast, worldwide pedophile priests scandal and the all-the-way-to-the-Vatican cover-up that kept this under wraps for decades.
And with every outdoor scene — church steeples in the background, children playing in the foreground — it’s a movie about a city, “a small town,” that grew used to living under a near theocracy, a city and a newspaper that accepted a good ol’ Catholic boys’ dictum that they just look the other way as this monstrous crime grew and grew.
Michael Keaton is Robby Robinson, veteran editor of the “Spotlight” section of the Boston Globe, leading three reporters on the newspaper’s investigative team. It’s 2001, and a story crops up, not the first one, about adult victims of sexual abuse suing the Church. Robinson and members of his team — the manic workaholic Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo, in the best performance of his career), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carol (Brian d’Arcy James) are intrigued. But they’re already deep in another story.
It’s the outsider, the new Jewish managing editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber at his most poker-faced) who suggests this is “an essential story.” He’s the one who shakes Robinson and other editors (John Slattery) out of their “hometown paper doesn’t fight the hometown church” lethargy. They sue to get the sealed court papers that the church doesn’t want anybody to see.
What follows is a two hour journalism procedural. This is how you pick at a story nobody wants you to tell. You get names, you make calls. You try to move lawyers, victims and priests from slamming the door in your face to opening up.
“You want to be on the right side of this,” Keaton’s Robinson tells an old golfing buddy (Jamey Sheridan).
Stanley Tucci is Mitchell Garabedian, the determined, shell-shocked attorney for a huge group of victims. A Church that has gotten the legislature to limit “non-profit” liability in cases like that has been trying to get him disbarred for even bringing it up. And he’s leery of the Globe, too. And of this city of insiders that mistrusts outsiders (he’s Armenian).
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.”
Billy Crudup is a slick attorney who has worked for the Church on past payoffs to victims, and won’t admit it.
Neal Huff plays a traumatized victim who has organized other victims, who brings urgency to the reporting by damning the Globe for not acting on his blunt, documented tips to them years ago. He lays it out loudly and plainly, the Church played musical chairs, reassigning priests who “used their collar to rape kids.”
But Ruffalo’s Rezendes is the audience’s surrogate here, shocked at what he’s learning, committed — as the great reporters are — to not let a roadblock and long line of hostile, uncooperative sources, court employees and even a controlling, high-handed Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) beat him.
There’s a sad nostalgia to the details McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) zeroes in on — the tight-knit newsroom culture, the sense of duty, the all-hands-on-deck teamwork best viewed as the paper mobilizes its resources on 9/11. Newspapers are dying, a fact underlined by the 2001 AOL Everywhere billboard in front of the Globe’s headquarters. This sort of reporting is expensive and vital (TV and web-based ventures rarely uncover stories this huge) and virtually no papers have the money for such teams any more.
But if history’s tide runs against the Globe, at least those who worked there have the satisfaction of exposing a global wrong, and helping to end it. And they have McCarthy’s film, one of the best pictures of 2015, as a permanent record, a tribute in cinematic form, to their art and craft in its finest hour.
MPAA Rating:R for some language including sexual references
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci
Credits: Directed by Tom McCarthy, script by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. An Open Road release.
Running time: 2:08