We’re going after the system.” It’s a frequent refrain heard in a drama about the Boston Globe’s reports in the early 2000s of widespread child sex abuse by Catholic priests in Boston.
The system is big, which makes “Spotlight” a big movie, with a lot of moving parts. It doesn’t just cover the scandal, it covers the coverage, with a team of reporters investigating what sometimes seems like the entire city, including priests, victims, community leaders, lawyers and judges. Sometimes this scope overwhelms the film and it gets a little bogged down in details. But by constantly returning to the theme of combating silence, it remains a compelling argument to finding the truth and revealing it.
The story takes place during interesting times. We meet the main players as the Globe welcomes a new editor-in-chief, Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber), who huddles on his first day with the paper’s top editors, including Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (“Mad Men”’s John Slattery). Robinson and Bradlee expect layoffs amid the incipient second Internet revolution. Baron surprises them with another plan: bigger reporting, which includes sending the newspaper’s special investigative team, Spotlight, after the recent revelations about a local priest accused of child sex abuse.
Keaton heads that team, which includes reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). All are veterans who know they have a potentially explosive story on their hands, one that could blow up in everyone’s faces given the church’s deep roots in the community. Baron thinks they can prove Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law knew about the abuse. The Spotlight team knows that even if he’s right it could alienate half their readership.
“Spotlight” subtly weaves this fact into a story that takes place when newspapers were facing a decade of layoffs and closings. Their moral struggle to take on the ugly truth is mirrored by their subjects, those who have been abused, those who have tried to hide it and those who have tried to help. “Spotlight” has a real Pulitzer-winning series of articles behind it, and uses them to provide a broad and thorough account. It consistently rises above the formula of a journalism drama to realistically portray its characters and give voices to their plight.
For the victims, we gradually learn about the mechanisms that trapped them in victimhood: poverty and church power mostly, but also childhood confusion and psychological factors that go deeper than the surface-level accounts we often get in movies like this. Although it’s impossible to really get to know these people, we learn a surprising amount during the film’s two hours.
The movie’s search for the truth imbues it with a refreshing reality in other aspects. The Globe’s impressive, gilded facade and swanky lobby, for example, hide dusty reporter dens stacked high with drifts of clippings and reports. Mike and Matt find a dead rat in the archive stacks while doing research. Though their jobs put them in contact with the city’s richest and most powerful, they live ordinary lives outside of work. Just about all of them, having grown up in or around Boston, are lapsed Catholics, often with family members who will not be made happy by their current assignment.
We also witness their struggle to remain detached and objective amid disturbing findings and interviews with victims and advocates. The Spotlight team doesn’t merely struggle to tell the truth; eventually it struggles to withhold it, at least long enough to get beyond the individual stories and reveal the bigger picture, which, it believes, will have a greater impact on the community.
“Spotlight” is suspenseful, but it isn’t a straightforward suspense film about reporters battling injustice in the vein of “The Insider” or “Good Night, and Good Luck.” It doesn’t turn on secret meetings and dangerous adversaries. The church, we learn, was determined to cover up, and it tried to coerce people, but it didn’t resort to outright intimidation, at least not in the movie version.
“Spotlight” will likely go down anyway as one of the best movies of the year. More than a dramatic re-enactment of events, it’s a lesson in morality, showing the evil of staying silent and the good reporting does to vanquish it. It goes after the system. (R) 128 min. S