In 2001, the Boston Globe's Spotlight team put aside another investigation to look into suspicions of sexual abuse among Roman Catholic priests. What they uncovered changed how people around the world view organized religion; it's one of the most famous investigative reports in journalism history. And it's the basis for this year's masterful Spotlight.
Tom McCarthy, known as the director of The Station Agent, The Visitor and Win Win, takes a different approach with this one. There's no extraneous melodrama employed to heighten the tension; nobody's a drunk or a washed-up old timer with one last shot to land a big story. It's just a team of reporters working doggedly to uncover the truth, and it's to McCarthy's supreme credit that that's recognized as dramatic enough.
The ensemble cast, led by Michael Keaton as team leader "Robby" Robinson and Mark Ruffalo as boisterous reporter Mike Rezendes, fits into their roles like a glove. Stanley Tucci even gets his best role in years, as an Armenian lawyer who's challenging the Church in his own way. There's not a weak link among them; Liev Schreiber, in particular, is a standout as new Globe editor Marty Baron. His understated approach is perfect, embodying the quiet wisdom of an outsider who's fully aware of his propensity for stepping on toes.
And no work of art better captures Boston's disinterest in dealing with outsiders. They're not the only city that'd prefer to keep its messes internal (Philadelphia comes to mind) but they do lead the league in "us against the world" mentality. It's a brilliant choice by McCarthy and his fellow screenwriter Josh Singer to lay this on as thick as possible; even Baron's own colleagues at the Globe eye him warily until he proves his merit. What chance does he have with local politicians and the Catholic Church?
Spotlight also does its damnedest to summon a more naïve time, when the Church wasn't synonymous with child abuse. It's unfathomable that we allowed these transgressions to occur, but there was still a certain amount of leeway we gave hallowed institutions. That's why McCarthy's film has drawn comparisons to All the President's Men; it's a more clinical look at when, and why, we lost faith in yet another group of leaders. These are the kind of stories that need to be told over and over again, so we don't forget the need to question those in power and keep people safe.
As an avid film buff, a journalism degree-holder from Boston University, and an admitted fan of all things newspaper-y in nature, several friends asked me specifically whether Spotlight was worth their time. I encouraged them to see it as soon as possible, but also noted that they should clear their schedules afterwards. Much like the story that was reported, Spotlight is difficult to swallow but so worth the time needed to digest.