Spotlight' pays compelling tribute to in-depth reporting

Newspaper docudrama sheds light on Boston sex abuse scandal

Thursday November 12, 2015 04:00 am EST

A meme briefly flourished on social media about the perception of different careers, showing photos that represented, "What I think I do," "What society thinks I do," "What I really do," and more. Tom McCarthy's newspaper drama Spotlight recounts a compelling true story that does justice to what print journalists really do.

A taut, closely-observed account of The Boston Globe's "Spotlight" team in 2001 and 2002, the film shows unglamorous realities as dogged reporters and editors thumb through boxes of court documents and stories on microfilm in drab newsrooms. And by chronicling how they broke Boston's Catholic sex abuse scandal, Spotlight shows what reporters think they do — at least, in the best-case scenario — as members of a free, unfettered press.

A prologue conveys the extent of Boston's problem by showing a pedophile priest held at a police precinct until a high-ranking church member secretly secures his release. The story proper begins when Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over as the Globe's editor. A Jewish journalist from the Miami Herald, Baron's outsider status prompts him to assign the Spotlight team to take an in-depth, long-form investigation into rumors of sex abuse among the city's priests.

Under the Spotlight's editor/coach (Michael Keaton), the reporters include Mark Ruffalo, Brian d'Arcy James, and Rachel McAdams, who regularly attends mass with her grandmother. Asking questions seemingly no one in Boston wants to answer, they pursue a crusading, cantankerous lawyer (Stanley Tucci, a scene-stealer as always) who's openly skeptical of the Globe's commitment to the issue.

Interviews with grown victims of abuse prove as harrowing as you'd expect. Perhaps the film's most chilling moment comes when the reporters learn that there might be more predatory priests out there – a lot more – than they ever imagined. When the team finds records that could back up those claims, the film's focus on the reporting process proves intensely satisfying: you see how the characters' work earned them the revelations. But Spotlight doesn't paper over examples of institutional myopia and delays that held the story back.

As a moody workaholic, Ruffalo has the biggest speeches and seems most likely to get noticed during award season, but Spotlight proves to be a true ensemble film with nary a false note. Keaton's native Bostonian editor begins to wonder if the press — including himself — turned a blind eye to a domestic tragedy for years. The editorial chain of command includes John Slattery as managing editor Ben Bradley, Jr., whose father edited the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, giving both the film and the real events continuity with All the President's Men.

Director/co-writer Tom McCarthy specializes in low-key character-driven dramas like The Station Agent and The Visitor, and he flourishes with Spotlight's large cast and complex institutional issues. His storytelling here may have been informed by his experience playing an unethical reporter in "The Wire"'s newspaper-focused fifth season. Spotlight shows a similar fidelity to realism and reluctance to lionize its newshound protagonists.

One of Spotlight's most pertinent themes is also its most implicit, summed up by a scene in which an editor walks into the office beneath the looming billboard for America Online. The scene hints at how the shift of information consumption to the Internet will be disastrous for print media, in many places coming at the expense of in-depth reporting teams like the Spotlight journalists. Without being sentimental, Spotlight pays homage to a kind of career that feels increasingly endangered as media transformations have stopped the presses. (5 out of 5 stars)

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