Let me state this plainly: Spotlight is one of the best films of the year. In its film festival showings it has drawn comparison to another great movie, All the President’s Men, and understandably so. It dramatizes a real-life chapter in recent history of journalists working long and hard to break a difficult story. Reporters are the movie’s heroes, and it’s clear that director Tom McCarthy and his writing partner Josh Singer are celebrating the kind of journalism that is threatened with extinction today. Yet Spotlight is anything but elegiac: it is too busy recreating the dogged determination and patience of its protagonists as they gather the evidence they need to reveal a volatile story.
Set in 2001 and early 2002, Spotlight follows the Globe’s investigative team, led by Michael Keaton, as they follow every possible lead to expose the story of sexual abuse in Boston’s Catholic diocese. They know it’s true but they’re not sure how widespread it is, at first, or how long church leaders have known about it. Evidence of a cover-up is as disturbing as the events that predicated the need for such action.
Like All the President’s Men, the film is less about the scandal than it is the effort to uncover it. Along the way, we learn how different reporters—played with passion and conviction by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James—attack the assignment, using their strengths to break down potential sources, whether that means demanding court records or canvassing a neighborhood one door at a time. Keaton uses his influence to approach high-level sources—including close friends—who want nothing to do with the investigation. Liev Schreiber plays the newly-installed editor-in-chief of the paper who backs his team as they spend months digging for evidence in a city where the church has uncommon power and control.
Director McCarthy paces his film like a thriller and that’s just how it plays out. Knowing the outcome takes nothing away from the feeling of suspense and unease that he creates along the way. The film turns unexpectedly moving when we meet the first of many victims (who prefer to be called survivors) of pedophilia and see how he has been scarred by the experience.
The fact that there are stars in the leading roles doesn’t distract in the slightest, because they are so convincing; nearly all of them got to meet the people they’re portraying, which couldn’t have hurt. The cast is filled out with expert actors like Stanley Tucci, Len Cariou, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, and Jamey Sheridan, who bring their A-game to this juicy material.
Writer-director McCarthy is one of my favorite filmmakers: The Station Agent, The Visitor, and the underappreciated Win Win are among his credits. He’s also a busy actor and worked on the story of Pixar’s Up. This may well be his best work to date. The early awards “buzz” for Spotlight is not misplaced; it’s a terrific film and a must-see.