The latest film from Thomas McCarthy, the actor-turned-director behind The Station Agent and Win Win, focuses on the Pulitzer-winning Spotlight team from the Boston Globe who, in 2002, published an article that blew the Roman Catholic Church’s abuse scandal wide open. It’s a rather broad account of the events covered in the exposé and yet, in a way, is not so much about the events covered but the covering of the events. It’s about the nuts and bolts of pre-internet age investigative reporting, and about how actors who aren’t from Boston love to talk like they’re from Boston. Spotlight is no All the President’s Men, but what is?
We begin, as you might expect, in Boston in the early ’90s as a bishop is consoling a family in a local police station. A child has been abused by one of the bishop’s clergymen, and both boy and priest are present in the room. Dirt is swept quietly below the rug as the Bishop and Priest leave the building and speed around the corner in a jet-black convertible with tinted windows. Christmas lights drape down on the surrounding houses. Subtlety, it would seem, has left the building, and it won’t be rearing its head anytime soon.
McCarthy attended Boston College High School, a Jesuit establishment that subsequently became embroiled in the scandal. The Boston Globe’s office building is situated just across the street. That proximity might explain McCarthy’s fascination with the place, the event, and perhaps the industry, too (you might recall that he played the central reporter in the fifth season of The Wire). Continuing from this introductory scene, we jump forward to early 2001, perhaps the last great days of newspaper and ink. An AOL billboard hangs like a tombstone outside the office, and Michael Keaton’s character is quick to mention that the web has already pushed in on their classifieds section too.
Keaton plays Robby Robinson, a Boston Globe White House correspondent during the Reagan / H.W. Bush era and a fellow Boston College alumnus. He’s now the editor of the paper’s investigative Spotlight team. The newspaper’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), puts them onto the scent of a recent column regarding a Boston priest and a single case of sexual abuse. Robinson and his team — Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carol (Brian D’Arcy James), and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) — see the black piece of thread and decide to give it a pull.
Pfeiffer takes to the streets to interview a selection of cautious victims as Rezendes wades into the legal system, largely through the casework of long-suffering attorney Mitchell Garebedian (Stanley Tucci). It soon becomes clear that the cover-up is community-wide and could go right to the top if proven. Parents, policemen, government officials, layers, victims, and priests turn the collective blind eye, but our lively heroes have things like morality and integrity on their side, so they soldier on through it.
Amongst this riveting melee, very little time is taken to shine light onto the psychological turmoil of the perpetrators, or even that of the victims. The dangling carrot of discovery proves to be enough to engross the viewer. It’s about wise-cracking journos banging on doors and stuffing down pizza whenever they remember to eat. The reliable image of the boardroom table covered in Chinese take out never surfaces, but you get the idea.
The performances sometimes threaten to tip over into caricature, yet the dialogue from McCarthy and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) keeps things zipping along nicely. (You’d call it Sorkin-esque had both writers not worked together on The West Wing.) This is, admittedly, an actor’s movie. Keaton continues his resurgence with what is arguably the film’s central performance; Ruffalo is uncharacteristically overripe in a supporting role; John Slattery could play these kind of guys — and probably still get a laugh — in his sleep. The Bostonian twang is wheeled out with little discretion — largely, it must be said, by Keaton.
All in all it’s a compelling piece of work from McCarthy, perhaps his snappiest to date, and a definite improvement after the panning he received for The Cobbler. While it doesn’t delve as deep into its subjects as one might hope, Spotlight is a zippy, taut, and mightily distracting film.
Spotlight premiered at the Venice Film Festival and opens on November 6.