It’s no secret by now that the Catholic Church covered up sexual abuses committed by priests for years, but watching Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” serves as a horrifying reminder of just how widespread these abuses were and of how many years this went on. But the movie, however, isn’t so much about these unthinkable acts that destroyed many, many lives as it is about the importance of investigative journalist. Back in a time where many either turned a blind eye or were overly intimidated by the power of the Catholic Church, the investigative team at The Boston Globe relentlessly researched the facts and unveiled a vast conspiracy by the church to cover up the sex abuse cases, remove court records from the public and transfer pedophile priests from one city to another to avoid prosecution. We are introduced to a number of reporters, both new and veteran, who prove to be relentless in getting to the truth of the matter no matter what the cost, and that’s even though a few of them have skeletons in their closets which they have to bring out.
The opening title of “Spotlight” says that the movie is “based on actual events” instead of “based on a true story,” and that was refreshing to see as the latter term has long since lost all its meaning in the realm of cinema. Then again, no one could or would want to make a story like this as it deals with one of the most infuriating and unforgivable sins that anyone could ever commit: child abuse. McCarthy plunges us right into the newspaper workplace to where we immediately feel like part of the writing team that is there typing away at their computers and always keeping busy because there’s little time for rest when a good story comes along.
“Spotlight” itself refers to the oldest continually operating newspaper investigative unit in the United States which operates at The Boston Globe (or The Globe as the characters come to refer it as) and is comprised of a small group of journalists who can take up to a year to finally publish their stories. As the movie begins, The Globe’s editor is retiring and we are soon introduced to Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) who urges the team to look into Catholic priest John Geoghan. A small column in the paper discussed how Geoghan had sexually abused children and that Cardinal Law was aware of this and did nothing to stop it. But what starts out as an investigative report on one priest turns out to uncover widespread abuses made so many more.
Now this is one of those movies which you can count on not to have a single weak performance. Each actor captures their character in full technicolor as they obsessively work to put together a story that will expose crimes that should have been stopped decades before. Mark Ruffalo gives Michael Rezendes a pleasant demeanor as well as an obsessive edge as he furiously works to get to the facts before another newspaper beats him to it. Rachel McAdams makes Sacha Pfeiffer a wonderful sympathetic reporter and one who stays strong even as one front door after another gets slammed in her face. John Slattery makes Ben Bradlee into more than just your average newspaper boss, and the same goes for Gene Amoroso who shows us the layers beneath the gruff demeanor of reporter Stephen Kurkjian.
But the best performances in “Spotlight” prove to be the more subtle ones as it’s always impressive to see what actors can do without become all showy. Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan excel in smaller roles as attorneys who are not in a position to reveal much of their cases, but both actors show through ever so subtle facial expressions as to what they cannot hide from the public for much longer. Stanley Tucci makes attorney Mitchell Garabedian first come off as a bitter lawyer, but he soon shows how broken he has become over how the realm of justice has been betrayed by the religious powers that be. None of these actors ever go for the showy moment that is begging for Oscar attention as they are able to convey so much by doing so littlle. Crudup, Sheridan and Tucci are actors who inhabit their characters more than play them, and their performances here are further proof of that.
Michael Keaton, however, gives the best performance of all as Walter “Robby” Robinson, the head editor of Spotlight whose involvement in this controversial story eventually reveals his own wounded humanity and a mistake he made years before. The fact that Keaton was overlooked for an Oscar nomination is especially galling considering the love he got his performance in last year’s Best Picture winner “Birdman.” He’s always been a hell of an actor, and his omission makes one wonder if he is black instead of white. Not once does Keaton step wrong in his portrayal of Walter, and he was one of the many actors this past year, black or white, who deserved far more recognition.
For as much critical acclaim as this movie has received, it doesn’t quite pack the dramatic punch you expect it to. There’s no denying that this is a powerful motion picture, but you come out of it feeling like it could have gone even deeper. It’s also hard to keep track of all the characters running around on the screen that you can for a time lose track of who is who, and that makes a second viewing of “Spotlight” seem all the more necessary as a result.
Still, McCarthy succeeds in showing us the importance of investigative journalism in getting to the truth regardless of those who use their power to keep it hidden. It’s important to see this movie for that reason among others because this type of journalism threatens to become more and more rare these days due to us living in a world of sound bytes and a ridiculously increased attention on the shallowness of celebrities. As print media continues to dwindle, we need to realize the importance of newspapers and what they accomplished. What the Spotlight team ended up accomplished over a decade ago was major and helped to bring justice to those who were cruelly denied it.
One of the best movies of the year? Not quite, but certainly one of the most important and not worth missing.