By Isaac Feldberg, news correspondent
“Spotlight” is an electrifying procedural about the painstaking minutiae of investigation, bolstered by its appropriately restrained direction and wonderfully lean script.
Set mostly in 2001, the film centers on The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, a four-person unit devoted to in-depth investigative reporting, as it looks into allegations that a convicted pedophiliac priest may have molested more than 80 children during his years in the collar and robes. As the team pursues various leads, it becomes clear there’s much more going on than just a few bad apples. The team members’ findings lead them to conclude that the Roman Catholic Church has, for decades, been systemically shielding predatory priests from justice.
That bombshell finding only arrives after an extensive hunt for information through courts and street corners over multiple months. While reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) forms bonds with intensely traumatized victims, fellow writer Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) attempts to corner a workaholic lawyer (Stanley Tucci), who has been going to court on those victims’ behalf for years. Meanwhile, reporter Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) searches for a way to catch more of the offending fathers, ultimately discovering a shocking 87 potential predatory priests in the Boston area. At the helm of the investigation is Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), a veteran journalist quietly horrified by how the inattention of many powerful figures in the city, himself included, have allowed the scandal to continue.
Director Thomas McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer chose to limit the film to the perspective of the Spotlight team, as its members sift through mountains of documents to gather evidence of the church’s misconduct. “Spotlight” makes the reporters’ work riveting, leaning on what audiences already know of the outcome to build excitement, even while reveling in their methodic digging.
That approach brings a subtle horror to the investigation as the reporters unmask the negligence not just of a hallowed institution, but of an entire city.
“If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one,” one character bluntly posits.
McCarthy is marvelously scrupulous in how he paces the film, allowing momentum to build without aiming for the high-paranoia tensions of other newsroom thrillers like “The Insider” or “Kill the Messenger.” Even as Rezendes chases smoking-gun documents that prove the Cardinal’s knowledge of the abuse, or Carroll learns of suspect priests living in his neighborhood, the director keeps the focus on the deliberate collecting of facts, refusing to lean on unnecessary theatrics.
In keeping with the film’s refusal to glamorize any aspect of its story, “Spotlight” is an ensemble piece through-and-through, focusing far more on how characters function as a team than their lives as individuals. Ruffalo, in the meatiest role, gets a chance to fly off the handle late in the movie – a clip that could garner attention in the awards race this year – but the film mostly steers clear of histrionics, to its betterment. All the actors deliver powerful, yet understated, performances that feel realistic and lived-in.
Perhaps what’s most admirable about “Spotlight” is its clarity of purpose. Though it applauds the dogged reporters at The Globe, it’s equally concerned with humanizing and honoring the child abuse victims whose bravery in revisiting their traumas allowed the story to be written. By addressing The Globe’s role in failing to investigate the story earlier, “Spotlight” demonstrates an uncommon ability to salute its heroes without sanctifying them.
The film transcends the incendiary exposé at its heart to celebrate the raison d’etre of watchdog journalism: to question everything and everyone in the pursuit of truth, knowledge and, hopefully, accountability.
Photo courtesy Kerry Hayes