After premiering at the high-profile fall film festivals that signal the official start of Oscar movie season, "Spotlight" instantly became one of the more acclaimed films of the year thus far (and if you believe the Oscar prognosticators, it's the current front-runner to take home the Best Picture prize come February), and it's not hard to see why. Detailing the story behind the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal conducted by a small team of journalists at The Boston Globe, the film crackles with intelligence, boasting pitch-perfect writing, directing, and performances.
The arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, in a superbly understated performance), to the offices of The Boston Globe in early 2001 signifies a major shakeup to the paper. Jewish and an out-of-towner, Baron comes to the Globe by way of The Miami Herald, and if that wasn't enough to make his new employees wary, there are rumblings that his tenure at the Herald was distinguished by major cuts to that paper's staff. But Baron's outsider identity allows him the ability to take a hard look at the paper's practices.
A column about a local priest accused of molestation leads Baron to suggest there might be something more to the story, assigning Spotlight -- the paper's four-person department specializing in long-term investigative reporting -- to dig a little deeper. Overseen by managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the Spotlight team is made up of editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). What the group uncovers is a widespread and systemic issue that touches all corners of the world. They find an endless sea of victims, whose harrowing stories demonstrate not just physical abuse, but psychological and spiritual as well
As the scope of the story grows ever larger -- "if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one" -- it becomes increasingly clear that the Boston archdiocese played a major role in covering up the abuse cases, shuffling accused priests off to a few months of therapy, then to new parishes where the cycle was often repeated, all the while pressuring the victim's family to settle and keep their mouths shut. The film nails its specific sense of place, showing how Boston can be an insular and proud city. Being the most powerful institution in the city, the Catholic Church is entrenched in the very identity of its citizens, making them inclined to look the other way when decency says they should do the opposite.
"Spotlight" does little to make the real work of journalism seem sexy, concerning itself with the work involved -- the grunt work and endless research -- but it makes that work absolutely riveting to watch. We're engrossed in the story, and then when the emotion hits, it's absolutely devastating.
But as thrilling as the film can be, it's ultimately a mournful look at the last gasps of a brand of real investigative journalism that doesn't exist much anymore. Set in the early 2000's, when the Internet really began to take hold and eat into print media's readership, the film exists in a time when newspapers had the resources to allow stories to be in the works for months and reporters were committed to doing good work with the only reward being the satisfaction of getting important information out into the world. It's a bitter joke when we see that the Globe's staff park their cars each morning in the shadow of a massive billboard advertising AOL.
In many ways "Spotlight" covers similar terrain as "Truth," but is a stronger film in nearly every respect. It's confident enough in its storytelling to not beat us over the head with why these particular events are so important, and it never turns its message into a lecture. It's the rare newsroom movie that earns its comparisons to Alan J. Pakula's 1976 classic, "All the President's Men."
A true ensemble, each member of the cast gets their moment to shine and all rise to the occasion. Though we don't learn much about the personal lives of its characters outside of their job, we get a sense of who they are by how they perform their job, and the characters never devolve into types. McCarthy, working from a script co-written by Josh Singer, redeems himself after the abysmal Adam Sandler vehicle, "The Cobbler." McCarthy's unflashy direction doesn't draw attention to itself, but suits the material perfectly. In his hands, the film stays admirably restrained while delving into the type of lurid subject matter that could easily have become sensationalized and exploitative.