The new movie Spotlight begins inside a South Boston police station in 1976, where a Catholic bishop is counseling a distraught mother who may or may not bring charges against the priest accused of molesting her son. According to the desk sergeant outside the witness room, the bishop is in the station to “help out,” which in practical terms means not-so-subtly reminding the mother of all the good the church has done and continues to do that could presumably be undone if she pursues legal and very public recourse, as well as offering his hushed assurances that the offending priest will be dealt with and the crime her child has endured will never, ever happen again. Outside the witness room, a police officer speculates to the sergeant about the developing situation that “It’s gonna be hard to keep the papers away from the arraignment.” The sergeant shrugs and shakes his head. “What arraignment?” Soon the bishop has been spirited away by a limousine into the winter night, his bit of foul diplomacy finished—the mother has been placated, the problem at hand brushed aside.
With a few quick strokes, director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) and his co-scenarist Josh Singer (The West Wing, Fringe) establish not only the conspiratorial indifference and perhaps irrational instinct to protect the established bureaucracy of faith pervasive in largely Irish Catholic Boston neighborhoods of the day. They also establish the fleet, sturdy storytelling standards that will define their movie and give it weight as its narrative shifts closer to the present day and focuses on the Boston Globe’s investigative efforts, which began in July 2001, to expose a truly horrific network of abuse and cover-ups within the church, and to document and serve a community torn between personal morality and a fealty to religious faith.
Spotlight operates under the looming shadow of a scenario familiar to anyone used to holding a newspaper in their hands over the past 30 years or so. The arrival of Marty Baron, a new editor imported from the Miami Herald (Liev Schrieber, in a precisely understated performance), has the Globe staff wondering if more budget and personnel cuts, to appease the downtrend in revenue from classified ads as well as waning interest in print journalism in the Internet age, are on the way. The new boss won’t deny the possibility, but he’d rather attempt to make the paper essential to its readers again, and to that end presses two of his editors, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), son of the famed Washington Post editor, on how the Globe could fail to adequately follow-up on a recent story of a local priest caught up in accusations of molestation and abuse from 80 separate victims. The downcast glances and defensive discomfort of Bradlee and Robinson during this exchange eloquently suggest their worry that Baron, the first Jew to ever head up the Globe’s editorial staff, might be perceived as out to do damage to a religious institution he doesn’t empathize with, much less understand. But their defensiveness is just as closely related to their own history within the largely Catholic Boston community, as Catholics themselves (lapsed or otherwise) or as journalists aware of the church’s pervasive influence.
The movie’s empathetic awareness of this socio-religious grounding, which colors both the victims’ reticence to come forward and the journalists’ urgency to shed light on the crimes perpetrated upon them, proves to be a strong foundation for the movie’s own pursuits, among which include a compelling case, in this age of Internet downgrades and rehashed click-bait, for the urgency of investigative reporting. The obvious touchstone for Spotlight is Alan Pakula’s film of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s All the President’s Men, and both as a compelling distillation of factual material (here based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning reportage of the Globe as well as the contributions of Robinson and the principal members of the Spotlight team) and as a film, the comparison is apt. McCarthy shares with Pakula a cool confidence in the material—there is no aggressive stylistic showboating going on here, only a quiet assurance and observational quality well suited to a movie about reporting a case which relies heavily on the discretion and intuitiveness of the reporters at its center.
That confidence extends to the portrayal of the Globe journalists—Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who heads up the paper’s long-term investigative team, dubbed Spotlight; Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a writer whose life has been subsumed by his desire to chase down leads; Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers a halfway house for accused priests in his own neighborhood and has to keep quiet until the Globe’s story breaks; and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who dutifully attends mass with her grandmother and is haunted by what the revelations the Spotlight team is pursuing might do to the older woman’s faith.
Each of these actors deliver seemingly ego-free portrayals that are grounded in a degree of realism not found in newspaper dramas like Absence of Malice or The Paper. These aren’t crusaders looking for the nearest soapbox—they’re people who I’m guessing might rather not be defined by their jobs yet find it difficult to fight their instincts to get neck-deep in the story. And every one of these actors look at home in the newsroom, especially Ruffalo, whose testy, defiant, yet ingratiating Rezendes looks like he was born cajoling witnesses on the phone while shoveling forkfuls of Chinese food into his maw. Film critic Stephanie Zacharek, in her assessment of the movie for the Village Voice, describes the actor thusly: “Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who’s given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: He’s all sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling.” (I can’t do better than that. Zacharek’s entire review, which really is a must-read, can be found here.)
McAdams stands out as much for what she doesn’t do. Her Pfeiffer, at home and on the job, is a natural listener, but instead of an empty vessel the character registers as analytically alive to the people she engages. She has particular empathy for a young man (Michael Cyril Creighton) struggling with the notion of coming forward, who confides in her the spiritual devastation he experienced from the betrayal of a priest who assured him it was okay to be gay and then proceeded to undermine his entire sense of self by associating his primary homosexual encounter with confusion and shame. Creighton is tremulously magnificent in his brief appearance, abetted by the generosity of McAdams, who reflects Pfeiffer’s journalistic curiosity and capacity for understanding without a hint of actorly affectation.
But Keaton is Spotlight’s richest treasure. The actor trades on his likability, without necessarily playing sympathetic characters, like just about no one in the business right now, and his appearance here builds brilliantly on the combination of arrogance, affability and anguish he worked up to a lather in Birdman. As Robinson, he enriches the role by never quite buying into the easy mark of the editor as the movie’s primary moral force. (The fact that he’s part of a true ensemble, rather than king of the hill, also helps to undercut the notion.) There’s always a hint of a shadow at play over Keaton’s expressive, this-side-of-sardonic mug, and it’s a measure of the movie’s contemplative authority that Robinson, the one orchestrating the spotlight, would be the one whose own past mistakes might be most painfully exposed. Among the many outstanding performances here, Keaton’s shines brightest, shadows and all.
Among this excellent movie’s smartest moves was to not to inflate these working-class journalists into pompous, phony heroes, and outside of some of the outrage expressed by Rezendes as the archdiocese starts quietly wielding their influence against the tide of charges, McCarthy avoids the sort of excessive histrionics that might have undercut and distracted from its power. Instead, the director offers a relative stillness and sturdiness to his movie, and he resists the temptation to bog down in clichés of glowering priests in shadowy confessionals—why bother when you’ve got such an insinuating, deceptively cordial presence as Len Cariou’s Cardinal Law, apparent conductor of the archdiocese’s policy of shuffling offending clerics off to their next post to continue their criminal predilections, operating right there in broad daylight? And unlike a movie like Barry Levinson’s Sleepers, a movie all about righteous and violent revenge against the perpetrators of sexual abuse, Spotlight refuses to indulge in ghastly flashbacks whose purpose could only be to inflame the audience’s outrage and exploit the anguish and pain of abuse.
Instead, that outrage is channeled toward figures such as a smarmy victims’ lawyer (Billy Crudup), or the church’s own counsel (Jamey Sheridan), whose moral compass has been compromised by the dissonance between what he believes and what he knows. By comparison, Stanley Tucci’s turn as Mitch Garabedian, the lawyer who holds the key to documents delineating what the cardinal knew about the extent of the abuse, may at first seem like a lark. But the actor has rarely seemed this focused, this engaged. Garabedian is impatient, brusque and calculating, but his cynicism is transparent, his interest in the victims he represents genuine, and Tucci invests a welcome measure of gamesmanship in him to match the desperate doggedness of Ruffalo’s Rezendes during their frequent encounters—he wants the reporter to earn his keep. They balance each other beautifully, while spurring each other on, and their scenes together, particularly when Rezendes interviews one of Garabedian’s understandably reluctant clients to an unexpected conclusion, sound off a deep and resonant chord.
McCarthy’s directorial instincts of modulation serve well to bear the movie up under the awful weight of its amassment of detail, relating both to the crime and to the specific social milieu of Boston Catholic pride and shame in which it unfolds, and Spotlight becomes all the more powerful in its refusal to grandstand. It demonstrates with purpose the power of restraint and understatement, and in so doing comes to deserve comparison with All the President’s Men as a great American movie about journalism, infused with a certain melancholy derived from the subject of its investigation, but also from an awareness of the inexorable and unpredictable transition of the profession itself. Early on, when Baron expresses a desire to make the Globe indispensable to its core readership again, Robinson responds, “I’d like to think it already is.” Spotlight shares that belief toward the function of investigative journalism and eloquently illustrates why it’s an important one in which to invest, even as the tactile sensation of newsprint on fingers threatens to become a thing of the past.