For me, this kind of story is why we do this.” So says Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron, the editor of the Boston Globe newspaper on the eve of the publication, in January 2002, of a story the team of investigative journalists in the paper’s Spotlight department had been working on for months. It would crack open the coverup of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church in Boston, led to the revelations of similar coverups around the U.S. and across the planet, and would go on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2003. But “this kind of story” represents the sort of journalism that, while not yet dead, is seriously threatened by the new economic realities of the Internet, which has no patience for the tedious and time-consuming — and expensive — legwork investigative journalism requires. And so, after this past autumn’s Truth, about how the pressures of corporate TV also do not mesh well with the needs of investigative journalism, Spotlight, the story of how that story got told, becomes another elegy for old-school, pounding-the-beat reportage and the dedicated people who pursue it, and a reminder that it serves an essential watchdog function in our society that we cannot allow to disappear.
The impact of the new Internet reality is already beginning to be felt as Schreiber’s (Pawn Sacrifice, Fading Gigolo) Baron arrives at the Globe in the summer of 2001, as the film opens: rumors are he’s being brought in to cut staff, and he acknowledges that the paper is under financial pressure. But Baron also accidentally reinvigorates the Globe as a watchdog: he’s an outsider, not a Bostonian and — more importantly — not Catholic in a city that, it becomes clear as Spotlight unspools, is in thrall to the Church: its citizens, its institutions (including the Globe), and its government, all are afraid to rile the Church. Baron picks up on one of the threads of the pedophile-priest issue the Globe had already touched on — a sort of newspaper equivalent of the hushed gossip that had surrounded the matter for decades but had never broken into the larger cultural discussion — and he sics the Spotlight team on it.
The Spotlight team, too, are almost outsiders at the paper: they toil out of a small, confined basement office, far from the bustle of the wide-open newsroom. It’s not an awful place, by any means, but it is clearly separate, apart, operating under its own rules. But they needed a kick, and now they pounce, not only relishing the journalistic thrill of a meaty story but eager, as their evidence piles up, to see long-overdue justice done. Their thrills become ours: this is an unexpectedly exciting film, all the more unexpectedly because it does not glamorize the work or turn its reporters into heroes or paragons. Spotlight leader Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton: Minions, Birdman) and his team — Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo: Avengers: Age of Ultron, Foxcatcher), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams: Southpaw, A Most Wanted Man), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James: Sisters, Admission) — and their immediate boss, assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery: Ant-Man, Ted 2), are all lapsed Catholics and struggle with complex personal relationships to the story and to the Church.
But they are all passionate about the work, and their passion is infectious: Ruffalo and Keaton in particular are strikingly spirited, drawing us into their fire in a way that makes us, too, ache to take on the powers that be. Spotlight is basically a journalistic procedural, a detective story of the realistic sort, all digging through court documents and scanning Church records and hunting down victims and witnesses and perpetrators. It should be unrelentingly dry and dull, but director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent), who wrote the film with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), brings to it a snappy rush of urgent discovery and consequence. And yet there’s nothing salacious or sensational here, either. When the voices of victims (most prominently played by Neal Huff [The Sisterhood of Night, The Grand Budapest Hotel], Jimmy LeBlanc [Gone Baby Gone], and Michael Cyril Creighton) are heard, in brief but intense scenes full of raw emotion, they are filtered through the calm professionalism of the journalists not just giving them an ear but also creating a larger context. Lawyers on all sides of the matter — played by Stanley Tucci (The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, Wild Card), Billy Crudup (Blood Ties, Eat Pray Love), and Jamey Sheridan (The East, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God) — bring different sorts of anger and frustration, sometimes when it’s least expected, with the secrecy and the institutional inertia that the situation is wrapped in.
There isn’t a misplaced beat here, or a superfluous moment. This isn’t a short movie, but it is a lean one, and it zips by even while you feel as if you could watch it forever. It’s a story not about conspiracy theory but conspiracy truth, about how “everyone knew something was going on” but no one dared to talk about it until fearless principled journalism started the conversation. The real Michael Rezendes may still be on the Globe’s Spotlight team to this day, but the work it does is even more under threat now than it was a decade and a half ago. I don’t know how we fix that, but I do know that it has to be fixed. Spotlight is the evidence of that.