The scandal of the sexual abuse of children by priests in the Catholic Church, and the systematic cover-up of that abuse, reached public awareness sporadically in the 1980s and 90s, through some high-profile cases and a few book-length exposes. But the tipping point, when the story finally became too big to be buried, was through a series of newspaper articles in the Boston Globe in 2002, exposing shockingly widespread abuse just within Boston alone.
Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer wrote a screenplay about these Globe reporters, with McCarthy directing the film. It’s called Spotlight—which is the name of a small unit of investigative journalists working on long-term stories, usually involving official corruption in some form. As the film opens in 2001, a new chief editor has been hired from The Miami Herald: an outsider, unfamiliar with Boston, named Marty Baron, and played by Liev Schreiber. Looking for a way to improve the paper’s profile, Baron notices a piece by one of the paper’s columnists about the way the archdiocese has tended to cover up abuse cases. He wants to go further, and assigns the story to Spotlight, which is headed by Walter Robinson, nicknamed “Robby,” and played by Michael Keaton. The other three members of the Spotlight team are performed by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James. Mike Rezendes, the one played by Ruffalo, is a relentless workaholic, and he becomes the story’s lead writer and investigator.
The team turns up a lot more than they bargained for, with the cover-up implicating the Boston Catholic hierarchy, the people (including some lawyers) who enabled them, and ultimately the city’s archbishop, Cardinal Bernard Law. Of course, along the way, the paper receives a lot of pressure to lay off the story and protect the Church from scandal.
This is a solid major Hollywood production, so predictably it’s being promoted as a kind of hard-hitting, dramatic political thriller, along with the usual Oscar talk. But what I find interesting and refreshing is that McCarthy actually presents the story in a very down-to-earth, even subdued manner. This is a true-to-life newspaper procedural, the kind of thing we don’t see much of since print journalism has been weakened by the internet. The drama is all in the process; the characters are ordinary people doing their jobs. They make mistakes, and the film even shows how the Globe had failed to follow up the leads in this scandal in previous years.
Michael Keaton is a stand-out as the lead editor of Spotlight. You may recall that he starred as a maverick editor in a film called The Paper in 1994. That was pretty good, but he’s matured as an actor since then—he’s excellent as a man whose controlled demeanor conceals a toughness that comes out when it’s most needed.
In addition to the fine performances from the cast that I’ve already mentioned, John Slattery is on hand as a deputy editor who gradually comes around to the story, and Stanley Tucci does a nice turn as a dogged, somewhat eccentric attorney for the victims.
Spotlight is a film with a rare virtue: modesty. It sticks to the basics without frills, thereby telling an important true story.