If you’re a journalist who writes about movies, the Toronto International Film Festival is a great place to feel both important and the exact opposite of that. On the one hand, you get to see big-ticket movies months before your friends, and less high-profile movies they’ll never have a chance to see; you get whisked into world premieres and seated mere feet away from their stars, so you can sneak a peek at that famous actor’s reaction when the audience applauds his onscreen death. You also get to arrive for an interview with those stars that starts hours after it was supposed to, morosely trying to salvage your schedule as the time slips away; then, right before you go in, find out your scheduled 20 minutes has been cut to 12, and get the anxious “One more question” sign from a publicist after eight. The ever-more-hectic scrum led Globe & Mail’s Barry Hertz to write that this year’s TIFF “has hit a new low in movie-media relations.”
In other words, it’s a good place to unveil “Spotlight,” a movie about the hard-working Boston Globe journalists who uncovered the Catholic Church’s role in protecting pedophile priests, establishing a pattern that was eventually documented on a worldwide scale. True, most movie writers at Toronto are more busy blowing the lid off the story of who showed up at what party than institutional corruption, but when Mark Ruffalo, as the Globe’s Michael Rezendes, sits down to write his story and the days to his deadline tick away in the corner of the screen, it’s hard not to experience at least a faint ping of recognition. That sense of kinship, as well as the fact that Toronto’s first weekend elapsed without the festival producing a breakout, may have something to do with why critics responded so strongly to the movie’s Monday-morning screening, which already has “Spotlight” being hailed as the year’s first Best Picture frontrunner.
Director Tom McCarthy’s nuts-and-bolts approach to the process of investigative journalism has already earned “Spotlight” ample comparison to “All the President’s Men,” and there is a certain “follow the money” quality to the way the reporters in the Globe’s Spotlight unit — Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton),” Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), plus Ruffalo’s Rezendes — track the Catholic Church’s pattern of shuttling rapist priests between parishes rather than bring them to justice, listing them as being on “sick leave” or sending them to nondescript “treatment centers.” 2001 isn’t so long ago, but the techniques the Spotlight team employs scarcely differ from those Woodward and Bernstein used to expose Watergate: making calls, showing up on people’s doorsteps, sorting through literal reams of documents with no technology more advanced than a ruler and a ballpoint pen. (McCarthy prominently features an AOL billboard in one shot as a reminder of how much the landscape has changed since.) Subtly, and perhaps even unintentionally, “Spotlight” makes the point that data journalism existed long before algorithms became the tool of the trade.
At the movie’s premiere, the real Rezendes admitted that reporters often find their own work “quite tedious,” and it’s in not shrinking from that aspect of the job that “Spotlight” significantly, and importantly, distinguishes itself from “All the President’s Men.” There is a conspiracy in “Spotlight,” a city-wide cloak of silence involving the Church, the police and the courts, but it doesn’t require skulking in dimly lit parking garages to uncover it. The victims Spotlight’s reporters meet aren’t reluctant to tell their stories because they’re afraid of repercussions, but because they’ve tried and been ignored — including by the Globe itself. The movie walks a tricky line between lionizing the reporters’ doggedness — when he’s interviewing a reluctant subject, Ruffalo ducks his head like a boxer looking for an opening — and underlining their ordinariness. They didn’t break the story because they’re superhuman, but because they put in the hours when no one else had. “Spotlight’s” investigation kicks into gear when the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Scheiber) reads a column about an accused priest and asks “Where’s the follow?” Knowing there’s a story is one thing; sticking to it is what actually makes change. “Spotlight” is all about the follow. “All the President’s Men” effectively ends with Woodward & Bernstein’s exposé, but “Spotlight” goes on to emphasize that the first big story was only the beginning. (The Spotlight team eventually wrote more than 600 stories over the course of a year.)
“Spotlight” is wonky, but it manages to be thrillingly wonky, emphasizing that journalism is more than the paper it is, or isn’t, printed on. As they head to the Globe’s archives to blow the dust off the documents that will provided a crucial break in the case, Rezendes and Carroll walk past the paper’s printing presses, a reminder of the heavy machinery that is, still, a vital part of the process. Those presses will shut down some day, but the grunt work of investigative journalism can’t be so easily replaced. It still takes men and women knocking on doors and going through evidence that lies beyond the reach of a search engine, backed by institutional resources and given the time and independence to follow a story wherever it leads.