Not since the Oscar-winning “All the President’s Men” in 1976 has a movie offered such a compelling, intriguing and important look at the world of journalim as “Spotlight.” This examination of the Boston Globe’s investigative team – known as Spotlight – uncovering the massive cover-up of the scandal of priests molesting children is one of the best pictures of the year.
Director Tom McCarthy has managed to take what is at its heart a story of people doing their job and elevate it to a grand level. He does this through a smart script that not only slowly lays out the details of the scandal but puts some very real faces on all of the players.
And he gets first-rate performances from all of his cast, including wonderfully controlled work by Michael Keaton and a cerebral role for Liev Schreiber that in lesser hands could have come across as dull and boring.
“Spotlight” begins in the summer of 2001 where the Boston Globe has a new editor (Schreiber). He directs Spotlight editor Robby Robinson (Keaton) to follow up on a column about a local priest accused of abusing dozens of young parishoners over the past three decades.
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What the team slowly discovers is a pattern of abuse conduct by almost 100 priests. Making the story even more important was the systematic cover-up of the abuse by the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. The story was so big that after the Boston Globe published it, more than 200 cities around the globe began similar investigations.
Had this been just a story about the priests and their victims, there would have been a natural power to the story. The problem McCarthy faced was that most of this story unfolds from the sidelines. There are lots of scenes of reporters trying and failing to find the next link in the story.
The director manages to make this point of view work just as compelling by making his reporters and editors equally engaging.
Mark Ruffalo provides the spark as lead writer Mike Rezendes. He’s so passionate about exposing this story that he can hardly control his feelings. That’s balanced well by Keaton’s quiet and controlled work as the Spotlight editor. His is the continuing voice of reason who keeps the team focused.
That team also includes Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, the lone female on the team. McCarthy not only shows her as both a skilled reporter but also as a caring wife. There aren’t a lot of moments in “Spotlight” when the home lives of the major players are revealed, and so the scenes with McAdams resonate even louder.
The rest of the supporting cast is equally strong. Brian d’Arcy James plays a reporter torn between protecting the story and wanting to use the information to protect potential victims. Stanley Tucci is a firebrand lawyer who provides the key break in the case. And, there are a host of victims of the abuse who provide a constant reminder that this is not just a story about the workings of journalism but is built on the broken lives of real people.
It is always hard to make the mechanics of a profession seem interesting. So much of a job is tedious work needed to keep the process running. And, interest in this movie by movie critics could be tainted by their having a more first-hand look at this world.
That may be the case but doesn’t distract from the fact the structure and presentation of this story is strong enough to pull in and entertain those from any walk of life. McCarthy shows that with a compelling story, first-rate actors and a script that doesn’t assume the audience won’t understand procedures, that a look behind the curtain can be a triumph.