2001 may have been the last year of a major investigative reporting story in American journalism. In the last 15 years we've seen massive changes regarding the newspaper business, with almost everything shifting online towards the bloggers, hackers and whistleblowers who embdy no real editorial responsibility for what they do or what they uncover. In that sense, Spotlight, which recalls the process the investigative team at the Boston Globe undertook to uncover the massive abuse and cover up scandal the Catholic Church had been involved in for decades, is like a period piece celebrating a bygone era.
It's also a riveting procedural, directed with an invisible and flawless eye by Tom McCarthy, the independent filmmaker whose past work includes The Station Agent and The Visitor. There's not a single wasted scene in Spotlight, named for the investigative team at the Globe, as it documents the frame by frame process that began in July of 2001, when new editor Marty Baron (a quietly outstanding Liev Schreiber) arrived in Boston and set to work ordering the Spotlight team to start digging around stories of child abuse by a Boston priest said to have molested 80 kids over the years. At Baron's orders, Spotlight editor Walter "Robbie" Robertson leads his team as they go step by step, interviewing lawyers for the church and the victims, uncovering more and more cases of abuse and eventually discovering how high up the scandal went, as the Archdiocese becomes implicated in the investigation. As we all now know, the church would pay off victims in under the table settlements and take the accused priests out of circulation, moving them from parish to parish in different cities, letting them abuse more and more kids before being transferred to their next residence.
The horror of the scandal is not really news however, since the Globe's revelations were worldwide headlines 15 years ago, and the film is more about the work it took to uncover the truth, as the Globe dug deeper and worked hard to get the facts right, waiting 6 months before going to print, a process that'd be unimaginable now. Much is made of the Globe's resources and ability to provide backing for such a long and detailed investigation, as subtle nods toward the encroaching ubiquity of the Internet is alluded to, while the reporters work in an old school, door to door fashion, traveling all over Boston to get at the heart of the city's penchant for protecting the Catholic Church. The ensemble cast is fantastic, all working in tandem with each other as every performance strikes the perfect note and is on the same level, with only Mark Ruffalo's excitable Mike Rezendes getting anything close to a scenery chewing moment. Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Billy Crudup and Stanley Tucci are all in sync with the rhythm of the material, as McCarthy exhibits perfect control over every scene as they move seamlessly from one to another, in service of a near perfect script from McCarthy and Josh Singer.
Spotlight is such a good movie that a couple of small moments, minor as they are, threaten the impact as a whole in ways they would not in a lesser film overall- Schreiber gets a monologue near the end that tries to absolve the team from blame for burying pieces of the story ten years earlier, and he seems to be speaking more the audience than the other actors in the room. It's the only moment that feels the least bit preachy, and a small diversion into McAdams and Ruffalo's personal reactions towards the story as it reaches publication also feels a tad disruptive of the tightly dispassionate tone the film has so effortlessly produced thus far, but moments like that do not ultimately blunt the impact of the film as it barrels toward its conclusion. This is a great movie about process, and about a moment in recent American history before everything would change. Whether it was for the better or not is a question left up to us.
* * * 1/2