In 2001, two new editors of the Boston Globe decided to unleash “Spotlight,” the newspaper’s rogue investigative reporting unit, on long-festering allegations of sexual abuse of young boys by Catholic priests in Massachusetts. In the tight, insular, traditionally religious-dominated city, few wanted to poke that particular hornet’s nest. Fewer still wanted to confess, whether they were victims, priests, or those in the know. Still, it was a story every knew but nobody told — of a long-standing, institutionalized system of psychological and sexual abuse which the Vatican, the Boston Diocese, the government, and the faithful pointedly looked the other way. Included among the enablers were the stuff and editors of the Globe who sat on incriminatory evidence for a full decade before stepping up.
But, in Spotlight —co-written (with Josh Singer) and directed by Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) — we see a team of imperfect journalists persist, dig, do the spadework, contact victims and priests until they unearthed decades of molestations that spread well beyond Boston. In the end, well over 1,000 sexual abuse survivors told their stories. Imagine the numbers of shamed, broken, drugged-out, and dead victims who never could.
To the credit of McCarthy and his team, the beautifully made, high-principled, talky Spotlight keeps its focus on the victims and the predatory priests, not on aggrandizing the reporters who drag the facts to the forefront. To its detriment, though, Spotlight — unlike, say, All The President’s Men or The Insider — brings us to the point of shock and outrage but never makes us sweat. Although we keep waiting but we never feel any sense of danger or mounting paranoia that, despite the script’s several warnings, the Church will strike back with a vengeance. The film too often pulls back and its impact feels blunt, muted, and even fuzzy.
The cast is certainly impeccable, though. Michael Keaton, never more lived-in or un-showy, is the Spotlight section’s cautious, crinkly editor. Burrowing under the dialogue, Keaton invests his character, a lapsed Catholic, with a nagging sense of ambivalence toward the ugly and explosive investigation. This, and the sense that his character is clinging to the smoke screen of old world Back Bay Boston tradition, make Keaton’s performance a master class performance in nuance. Liev Scheiber beautifully plays the paper’s hardnosed chief and, in an underwritten role as Spotlight’s chief reporter, intense, dedicated Mark Ruffalo gives the movie a sense of drive and dynamism. Rachel McAdams as Ruffalo’s rising counterpart is utterly convincing and never better than in a gorgeously written scene in which she flat-out confronts an aging priest with his abuses. McAdams is so damned good, the moment so powerful and skin-scrawling, you wish more of the film packed a similar wallop. Billy Crudup, too, aces a few scenes as a snaky lawyer on the take, a guy who’s been paying off the church’s sexual victims for years. His smug complacency and arrogance are chilling. Spotlight, even with its shortcomings, is high quality stuff.