For most Americans, especially those in law enforcement and news gathering, the public opinion tipping point on the issue of child sexual abuse by adult authority figures came on January 6, 2002, when the Boston Globe published a bombshell investigation of pedophilic crimes committed under the nose of the Roman Catholic church in that city. Tom McCarthy's Spotlight tells the story and the story behind the story in a brisk, businesslike fashion from the newspaper's point of view, buoyed by sharp performances from a large cast of character actors.
Ask anyone who has ever worked in one — there's no place in the world quite so alive as a newsroom an hour before deadline. A flurry of activity but also of ideas, people pinging off each other, a clatter of opinions, the talk of the town. Of course, print publications are not what they used to be, and today's broadcast and online media offer a degree of heat but little light. With that in mind, the central subplot of Spotlight — the title refers to the Globe's hush-hush squad of investigative reporters — functions as a tribute to the time-consuming, old-fashioned business of developing sources, knocking on doors, asking the same questions day after day, boiling down mountains of hearsay and random information, and either coming up with a usable story, or throwing it all away and going after something else. A romantic concept? Yes, but in its way a microcosm of democracy.
Now picture a newsroom staffed by Mark Ruffalo (as reporter Mark Rezendes), Michael Keaton (as Spotlight team editor Walter "Robbie" Robinson), Rachel McAdams (reporter Sacha Pfeiffer), Brian d'Arcy James (reporter Matt Carroll), John Slattery (editor Ben Bradlee Jr.), and Liev Schreiber (editor-in-chief Marty Baron). Contrast their feverish digging with Stanley Tucci as victims' advocate Mitchell Garabedian, and Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan as apologists for the church. Ruffalo and Keaton stand out (they usually do, in every movie they're in), but each vivid personality in the drama — screenplay by director McCarthy (The Visitor) and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) — down to the smallest character, tells its own piece of the complicated, discouraging tale.
The account of predatory priests and brothers violating children, then being shielded by church hierarchy, was the epitome of a "usable story" in Boston in 2002. In McCarthy's film, seemingly every cop, bailiff, turnkey, judge, businessperson, politician, leg-breaker, and bartender in the city turns a peculiar shade of gray and turns his or her head away when the words "priest" and "child molestation" come up in the same sentence. Boston is utterly church-ridden. Almost no one has the guts to squeal what everyone knows.
And yet, on the other side, when we hear from a pathetic figure like Phil Saviano (played by Neal Huff), who was raped for years by his parish priest and is still haunted by the memory, we suffer along with him. Worse still, we learn that certain ecclesiastical pedophiles target poor boys and girls because, to those kids, a priest is the ultimate authority figure, one step away from God. How can you say no when God wants you to give him a blowjob?
In Spotlight, the scenario overshadows the acting and filmmaking techniques. It's so grim we'll probably only want to look at it once, but we're happy that someone cared enough to confront evil.