Ever since “Spotlight” made its debut at a handful of international film festivals at the beginning of September, it has been praised by many people, almost all of them journalists. And that makes sense, since the film chronicles the reporting of The Boston Globe’s investigative Spotlight team as it uncovered the Roman Catholic Church’s decades-long coverup of pedophile priests. The press has to love a movie that glorifies the press, right?
Actually, one of the reasons that “Spotlight” is so deeply, absurdly satisfying to this newspaper writer — and to most of those I’ve spoken with, at the Globe and elsewhere — is that Tom McCarthy’s movie doesn’t turn its journalists into heroes. It just lets them do their jobs, as tedious and critical as those are, with a realism that grips an audience almost in spite of itself.
McCarthy (“The Visitor,” “Win Win”) and his co-writer Josh Singer (“The West Wing,” “The Fifth Estate”) understand that the reporters aren’t the story in “Spotlight.” The story is the story. That, and the people whose stories the reporters want to tell: the men (and women) who were damaged unthinkably and twice — first, in childhood, by men of God and, later, by an institution that protected the abusers and enabled their abuse.
So “Spotlight” is about process — about the inherent drama of news gathering — even more so than that benchmark newsroom classic, “All the President’s Men,” which the new movie resembles. (The office furniture seems unchanged since the 1970s, for one thing, and, trust me, that is realism.) Covering a half-year period from mid-2001 through the beginning of 2002, the movie follows the reporters and their editors with a minimum of melodramatic window dressing.
Michael Keaton plays Spotlight editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (“player-coach,” is how he refers to himself) as an inversion of last year’s Birdman, all watchfulness and taciturn Boston wit. Under his management are reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). Above him are deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery of “Mad Men”) and the new guy in town, editor in chief Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who puts Robinson’s crew on the clergy abuse story during his first day on the job.
If you like your true-crime dramas torqued up to high RPMs, you’re in for a letdown. Most of the movie is people talking, in chairs, in meetings, on the phone. The film’s action alternates between combing through dusty files and harrowing interviews with abuse victims who’ve given up on being heard, among them Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), a local leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), and the late Patrick McSorley (Jimmy LeBlanc). The performances are terribly moving; the details remain tough sledding.
At issue, initially, is whether the Globe can successfully petition the Massachusetts courts to release sealed documents pertaining to the case of the Rev. John Geoghan, accused of molesting dozens of boys over the years. This becomes a dark comic motif early in “Spotlight”; “You want to sue the Catholic Church,” people keep incredulously telling Baron. Behind that disbelief, the movie observes, is a vast civic wall of deference and complacency — an inculcated, generations-old bowing down before the power of spiritual and institutional authority.
The new editor has a getting-to-know-you meeting with Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), who turns on the charm and gifts him with a catechism. Later in the movie, an affable friend of the archdiocese (Paul Guilfoyle) turns up to warn Robinson off. “This is how it happens, isn’t it?” Robinson muses. “Guy leans on a guy, and suddenly the whole town just looks the other way.” The enablers are well-intentioned, well-connected, and everywhere.
Maybe it’s too early to decide whether “Spotlight” is among the best Boston movies ever made — the accents are fine, the filmmakers seem to have the lay of the land — but in certain awful aspects it’s the most truthful. You sense the stain spreading across our neighborhoods and into the reporters’ lives when Robinson walks across Dorchester’s Morrissey Boulevard from the Globe offices to his alma mater, B.C. High, to ask unwanted questions about a fondly remembered teacher. During the end credits, the film lets that stain keep spreading into the rest of the country and the world.
The lighting is flat and unflattering, and the offices are dingy cinderblock veal pens. The pace is painstaking and steady. We all know how it’s going to end. Yet “Spotlight” holds you in a fugue state of suspense, the kind you replay in your head on the drive home and on into the next day, trying to retrace the chain of revelations, of how small things became enormous. The movie’s pared to the bone: There are no flashbacks, no office romances, mere glimpses of the reporters’ spouses and homes. There’s only one Big Speech, from Ruffalo’s Rezendes, and you’ve already heard it because they have to put something righteous-sounding in the trailers and awards-show clip reels. (What the clips don’t show is that the Big Speech has no effect whatsoever on Robinson’s decision to hold the story until it’s good and ready.)
A personal note: Obviously, I couldn’t be less objective about this movie. Neither could you if a film crew came in and made a drama in your office, with A-list stars playing the men and women you stand next to in the lunch line and banter with on the escalator (when it’s working). The filmmakers shot both at the Globe offices and on sets built in Toronto; to add to my critical vertigo, actual co-workers can be glimpsed out of focus in the background of some shots.
Still, an insider’s eye has its benefits. Knowing the real reporters as I do — not closely but as colleagues — it’s fascinating to see how “Spotlight” builds character out of individuality rather than the other way around, as is standard operating procedure in Hollywood. Baron, now executive editor at The Washington Post, is a telling example. Where the movies like to portray their top editors as brash egotists braying into phones, the real Marty Baron is such a recessive, thoughtful figure that people can be drawn to him out of sheer curiosity. (They stay out of respect.) Schreiber gets the man’s anti-charisma charisma and so does the movie, and the result is a character type that feels genuinely new in commercial narrative: the minimalist leader. So it is with Keaton’s laconic Robinson — when things get bad, he just gets quieter — or with Ruffalo, who captures Rezendes’s forward-tilting tenacity with a faithfulness that gives some of us at the paper the giggles.
There are, of course, plenty of areas in which “Spotlight” takes liberties with the actuality of events and their order and who said what when. It downplays articles written in 2001 by Kristen Lombardi at the Boston Phoenix that preceded the Globe investigation (the script name-checks the paper but not the writer), and it folds the various lawyers representing the victims into the single querulous figure of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, who is his usual marvelous self). It skates over the many, many other Globe reporters and editors who were part of breaking this story. As always, you are seeing a representative truth.
But the movie’s also notable for how hard and successfully it resists the urge to amp up false drama; the filmmakers’ responsibility to the victims includes honoring how their traumas were brought to light. And “Spotlight” makes the sharp, sobering point that it took an outsider, Baron, to notice what the locals didn’t, or couldn’t, or maybe even wouldn’t, and that the Globe had more than one chance to open an investigation years earlier than it did. The movie paints this as the regrettable bureaucratic oversight of a hectic workplace. It’s also true that people are flawed and that institutions thrive by not making waves. Until something changes, and they do.
Among its other aspects, “Spotlight” is a fine example of the newsroom genre, minus the montage of spinning front pages but including a climactic sequence of the presses churning out the bombshell that will soon land on everyone’s porch. For people in the business, those shots are loaded with enough mounting nostalgia to bring on the tears. For those on the outside, they may serve as a reminder of the larger ideals that come with having a free press — and the hard, unheroic, everyday work that goes into maintaining it over the long haul.
Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Josh Singer and McCarthy. Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci. At Boston Common. 128 minutes. R (some language, including sexual references; frank discussions of molestation).