In the early 2000s, the trenchant reporters of The Boston Globe’s elite Spotlight unit trained their sights on a hot-button story that had gone unreported for too long. Since as far back as the mid-‘70s, Catholic priests in Massachusetts had been quietly shuffled around from parish to parish every couple of years, with such suspect labels as “sabbatical” and “sick leave” noted in the public ledgers as reasons for departure. The sickening truth was that the officials in the Catholic church had perfected an insidious system permitting priests to molest and rape young boys with zero repercussions, and had been doing so for decades. No spoiler alert needed here — by now, this shameful chapter of the church’s history has been made common knowledge, all due to the valiant efforts of the Spotlight team.
Tom McCarthy, bouncing back from the redwood-sized turd that was The Cobbler, takes the painstaking process by which the Globe staffers broke the story as the subject for his gripping new procedural Spotlight. McCarthy has the good sense to place absolute faith in the strength of this incredible-but-true story, generating ample drama from the nuts and bolts of reporting. Impassioned speeches about Integrity and The Importance of Journalists are mercifully absent, save one late-in-the-game monologue from Mark Ruffalo’s eccentric reporter, Michael Rezendes. Instead, McCarthy draws the audience in by following Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson’s (Michael Keaton) team as they canvas dirt-and-gravel neighborhoods, enduring as many slammed doors as they have to until they can find that key source. And when they do finally begin to pull on the right threads, it’s breathtaking to see the whole terrible truth unravel.
The concept of retelling the Spotlight story was so fraught with potential to go horribly, overbearingly awry, and yet McCarthy deftly sidesteps every pitfall with skill. The survivors — not victims, a crucial distinction made in the film — never get reduced to props that exist only to motivate the Globe staffers. McCarthy affords them the opportunity to tell their heartbreaking first-person accounts, bravely speaking through shame, fear, and tears about the trust that the priests systematically built up and then preyed upon. Like the devoted writers, McCarthy cuts no corners. He spins compelling, kinetic cinema out of the search for hard-to-find documents — no amount of time spent in the back alleys of Google can compare to good ol’ fashioned leather-to-pavement reporting. And so naturally, there’s a bit of hagiography for the industry of journalism itself. But that’s balanced with a level-headed pragmatism from new editor in town Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who has no trouble reminding Rezendes’ crack team that they’ve got a budget to stick to and papers to sell if they want to remain independent.
The most affecting dimension of the Globe’s reportage lies in the shockwaves that the story sends out into the state of Massachusetts, where townies tend to defend tradition with blind ferocity. McCarthy captures the spectrum in a simple scene near the film’s conclusion: Rachel McAdams’ Spotlight reporter presents her devout grandmother with a copy of the finished article. She doesn’t cry, or erupt with anger, or deny it. She looks forlorn, and requests a glass of water. What she is is blown away, just like the rest of us.
Rating: 4 Painstakingly Researched Burritos Out Of 5
Spotlight is in select theaters on November 6.