As the nation lumbers toward another major election, you can be sure that some of the candidates will be taking aim at the media. Many already have.
Tiresome as they may be, these inevitable anti-media rants make Spotlight — a terrific movie about how the Boston Globe’s investigative team uncovered sexual abuses by priests in Boston’s archdiocese — a must-see reminder that journalists can (and often do) make important contributions to the betterment of their communities.
Director Tom McCarthy builds his story around the Globe’s Spotlight team, a quartet of reporters who were given time to develop and report stories that required deep digging.
R for some language including sexual references
For 27 years, Robert Denerstein was the film critic at The Rocky Mountain News. Read more of Robert's reviews at Denerstein Unleashed.
Michael Keaton, who played a newspaper editor in Ron Howard’s sometimes overlooked The Paper, returns to the ranks of ink-stained wretches as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head of the Spotlight team.
The story of pedophile priests didn’t really take hold until the Globe got a new editor in 2001. Marty Baron — played in a masterfully collected performance by Liev Schreiber — was a Jewish newcomer to Boston. Baron, who’s now editor of the Washington Post, thought that the Globe had a responsibility to look at the failings of one of the city’s most revered institutions.
McCarthy (Win Win, The Visitor, and The Station Agent) keeps a complicated story on track in ways that sustain interest even though we already know the outcome of this unseemly tale.
In a way that works for the story, Spotlight doesn’t really have a main character. It’s about individual commitment within a context of team work, a much-needed tribute to role players. There are no star turns in Spotlight; the movie that celebrates journeyman work on every level.
The Spotlight team is ably represented by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy.
Ruffalo portrays Michael Rezendes, an avid, monkish reporter who eventually won the confidence of Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), a lawyer who represented victims of church abuse. Initially mistrustful of the Globe, Garabedian had spent years trying to interest the paper in what he saw as wide-scale criminality within the church.
McAdams plays Sacha Pfeiffer; she’s committed to the story but understands that it will shatter the church-centered world in which her grandmother — like many Catholic Bostonians — lives. Catholics made up 53 percent of the Globe’s readership.
D’Arcy portrays James Matt Carroll. While working on the story, Carroll discovers that his own home isn’t located far from a house where pedophile priests were hidden so that they could be “rehabilitated.”
Billy Crudup portrays a lawyer who knows how to keep the lid on things by making settlements with victims; and Jamey Sheridan has a nice turn as a church attorney who wants to avoid scandal for what he deems a greater good: maintaining the order of things.
Len Cariou portrays Cardinal Bernard Francis Law, the church official who eventually was accused of covering up sexual abuses of priests in his archdiocese.
I don’t normally like reviews that turn into lists of actors, but it’s impossible not to acknowledge all of those who contributed to a fine ensemble cast, including John Slattery, who plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the editor who functions as Robinson’s boss.
Spotlight’s reach extends beyond the way journalists handle a complicated story, although it certainly shows the required grunt work. It’s also about the way a community constructs a protective veneer around its valued institutions and how easy it is for lifelong members of that community to accept such facades as necessary and immutable.
McCarthy doesn’t neglect the toll that the investigation takes on the journalists who are conducting it. Keaton, better and much less showy than he was in Birdman, wrestles with the conflicts generated by his varying identities and loyalties: journalist, Catholic and Bostonian.
We meet victims of priests who are conflicted about telling their story, sometimes because they’ve tried before and were met with indifference. We meet Boston bigwigs; and see what happens when a Cardinal tries to charm a newspaper editor who’s not impressed by charm.
Spotlight bravely keeps its eye on truths that don’t always make the Globe look good: The paper, we learn, had enough information to have begun reporting the story 20 years before it actually turned to the task.
Credit Spotlight for not imbuing its hardworking journalists with phony nobility, for not sensationalizing a tawdry story and for reminding us that journalists do more than, as some would have you believe, employ cheap tricks to play “gotcha” with politicians.