It’s always a kick to attend a film festival premiere with big-name Hollywood stars in attendance, glamming up the joint and answering questions after the screening. When those stars are playing people you know and work with, and when those people are standing onstage next to their cinematic counterparts, the experience becomes actively surreal. So while I’m relieved that everyone else at the Toronto International Film Festival seems to be as knocked out by “Spotlight” as I am — the film not only earned a standing ovation at the evening public screening Monday night, but got a similar response at the press and industry screening earlier in the day, from as hidebound a bunch of professional cynics as you’ll ever encounter — I can’t pretend to be anything close to objective. I’ll just confess that I’m biased and that I loved the movie, and you can sort it out from there.
I’ll save most of my beans for the review that will run when “Spotlight” opens in theaters in early November. For now, let me just say that Tom McCarthy’s dramatization of the Globe Spotlight team’s investigation of the pedophile priest scandal that led to the 2002 resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law is a great newspaper movie, and maybe the last of its kind. It’s a painstaking procedural that is basically two hours of people sitting around desks and tables talking, and it is absurdly suspenseful.
The gold standard is “All the President’s Men,” a movie that was made back when everyone still loved journalists. “Spotlight” has a much harder row to hoe, but by emphasizing the sheer, dogged, tedious professionalism involved in ferreting out the truth, it comes close to the earlier movie and in some subtle ways may even outdo it. The film’s hook is the widening sphere of knowledge the reporters uncover — the almost unimaginable extent of damage wrought by abusive priests and a church that conspired to protect them. But its tactic is simply to observe the process, file by file, interview by interview, source by source, through which reporters brought that damage to light against an entrenched civic wall of resistance. No car chases. Only one or two pumped up speeches. Lots of meetings. That sounds as riveting as tax preparation. Yet “Spotlight” rarely relaxes its grip, emphasizing the lower-case humanity of both victims and journalists.
It also feels like a great Boston movie, by which I mean that “Spotlight” understands the ancient fault lines that separate this city’s parts from each other, the kowtowing toward institutionalism that protects institutions at the expense of individuals (and, no, the Globe itself isn’t exempt from the movie’s level gaze), and the sense that the worst imaginable sin is to raise the subjects everyone has tacitly agreed not to discuss. When Michael Keaton as Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson walks across Morrissey Boulevard in Dorchester to his alma mater, BC High, because he needs uncomfortable answers about one of the priests who worked there when he was a student, we’re already several layers deeper into the psychic archeology of Boston than any movie has dared to go. Even more than “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” or “Gone Baby Gone,” this movie feels steeped in the place we live and the way we think.
The rest of the cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, and Liev Schreiber, playing (respectively) reporters Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matt Carroll, and editors Ben Bradlee Jr. and Marty Baron. If you don’t know those people, the accuracy of the performances is a moot point. If you do, it’s uncanny, like someone imitating your parents. I’m most curious to see what audiences will make of Schreiber’s Baron, who’s the opposite of the clichéd movie editor barking “Get me rewrite!” into a phone. Instead, he’s a quiet, patient, intelligent outsider — a figure so thoughtfully recessive that he ends up drawing reporters and the audience to him like quizzical flies.
What I most appreciate about “Spotlight,” I think, is that it doesn’t turn its reporters into heroes, flawed or otherwise. It just lets them do their jobs, with the awareness that the job every so often makes good on the idealistic reasons a person might choose it in the first place. It’s too early to tell, but this may be the kind of movie that makes young audiences want to go into journalism. Let’s hope it’s not too late.
Watch the trailer: