It’s impossible to watch “Spotlight” without thinking of “All the President’s Men.” Like that 1976 investigative reporter classic, this fact-based film concerns newspaper journalists doggedly pursuing a mammoth story that no one wants to talk about. Taking place in 2001, the title comes from a small division of the “Boston Globe” that investigates and develops a specific story at length. They consist of the over-eager and relentless Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), the more reserved Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) and their beleaguered team editior, “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).
The “Globe’s” new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), takes particular notice of a column on allegations of molestation by a Catholic priest and the paper’s lack of any follow up to it. He tells the Spotlight team to drop what they were working on and put all their efforts into finding out more about this story. They quickly discover no one wants to get into it and receive multiple warnings to stay away from it. Yet over time, people start to come forward and what they begin to uncover reaches beyond just one priest in Boston and threatens to rock the Catholic church from its foundation.
Adding to the unavoidable comparison to “All the President’s Men,” the “Boston Globe’s” Deputy Managing Editor is Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery), the son of that story’s “Washington Post” editor. It also happens that the Spotlight team has a Deep Throat-like source they only speak to over the phone. But one big thing that earlier film had in its favor that this one misses is an immediate identification of and tight focus on its two main characters.
“Spotlight” has a huge cast that also includes Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle. Introductions are fast and vague and you spend the first 30 to 40 minutes of the film trying to grasp who people are and how they relate to one another. It’s only then that you can really begin to focus on the compelling and shocking story. When it sticks to that story, it’s riveting. When it takes time for personal character moments, as with a dismissible front porch scene between Ruffalo and McAdams, it grinds to a halt.
The one brief and powerful exception comes when Sacha’s grandmother (Eileen Padua), halfway through reading Spotlight’s initial article, pauses and asks for a glass of water. The shock and agony that reads on her face in that quick and subtle moment is unexpectedly devastating. Also memorable is Jimmy LeBlanc, as one of the first victims to speak, hauntingly recalling how his ice cream “just melted down my arm” when a friendly outing with a priest went bad. The performances are strong from everybody, but it is the terrific supporting players who give the film its real emotional impact and illustrate the story’s human toll.