Charting the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning exposure of widespread abuse of children by Catholic priests, this terrific film should be in the running for its own writing prizes, among others, come awards season.
McCarthy opens his film in the 1970s, with a scene that must have been repeated time and again while the city as a whole remained oblivious. A priest sits in a police cell, as in a nearby room a bishop placates the family whose child he has abused. The policemen on duty cynically know the outcome, which is that the priest will walk.
Moving forward to 2001, we find the staff at the Boston Globe feeling the pressure of cutbacks and a new editor – moreover, one who isn’t a Bostonian. But Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is not what they expected at all. Before cuts, he simply wants them to “do better”; being an outsider, in a city where community is everything and 53% of that community is Catholic, he doesn’t think twice about telling his investigative team, Spotlight, to start digging into a buried story that just won’t go away, involving Catholic priests.
This small team operates in a self-contained, confidential world of their own, cherry-picking the stories that they will then investigate for as long as a year: Robbie Robinson (Michael Keaton), who sees himself as a “player-coach”; Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), the terrier in the pack, and the quieter but no less dedicated Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy-James). They start with the lawyer who is filing suits for more than 80 victims of one priest who has already been exposed, years before; but the investigation goes beyond that, to the belief that there has been systematic abuse by many more priests, and a systematic cover-up involving the Boston Cardinal, lawyers, and who knows who else.
While “President’s Men” benefitted hugely from Alan J. Pakula’s atmospheric direction, which in turn fed off the paranoia engendered by the Seventies, perhaps its greatest pleasure was in watching Woodward and Bernstein (Redford and Hoffman) doing the legwork, the brainwork of making connections, the interviews and re-interviews that would stitch together the pieces of Watergate. McCarthy doesn’t have, or seek to create the same atmosphere, but he does have very similar fundamentals: an extraordinary tale of wrong-doing, an equally appalling and complex cover-up, and a team of reporters – backed by their editors and executives – who simply won’t let go.
The film, then, is very much a procedural, charting the team bringing together old leads and new ones, finding and interviewing victims, discovering the covert practice of moving abusing priests to other parishes or into treatment centres, coming to terms with a scale of abuse that, at the outset, they had never imagined. Of the team, Ruffalo’s Rezendes stands out, simply because of the energy generated by this crop-haired, tight-mouthed, hunched and hungry obsessive (who actually recalls Hoffman’s Bernstein, in that both characters have no idea how annoying they can be). Yet the honors are really collective, with all four actors replicating in their work together the kind of behavioral shorthand (no pun intended) on which all good newspaper reporters rely.
Around the mouthwatering ensemble is John Slattery as the paper’s managing editor (not once did I think of Roger Sterling), Stanley Tucci withholding all of his natural mischief as the conscientious but exceedingly prickly lawyer Mitchell Garabedian – the only good guy on display amongst the legal profession – who holds the key to breaking the story, and Schreiber, as a Jew in a Catholic town who is never allowed to forget it, whose shyness belies a brilliant journalistic instinct.
Although the newspaper detail on screen is excellent (I loved the trip down memory lane of actual newspaper cuttings), McCarthy’s direction here is low-key and invisible, allowing his actors and his muscular script (co-written with Josh Singer) to do the heavy lifting. The writing is impeccable, in presenting the warts and all of the newsroom, navigating the investigative trail, and – crucially– unveiling the real pain of the victims, who slowly step forward to reveal their stories.
The movie revisits three very different themes: the duel abuse inflicted by errant priests: physical and spiritual, because if you’re Catholic, and you’ve just been molested by your priest, who else can you turn to? Another is the sense that the larger community had to be regarded as culpable: at one point the journalists are told that as a subject of investigation, “the church is tough”; at another, that “no one wants to cuff a priest.”The Globe was definitely out on a limb. The third is that the paper itself had chances to expose the story earlier, but let them slip. It’s this kind of admission, in a film that is about journalists working at the top of their game, that makes the film itself so commendable.
It also happens to be very gripping. For those who feel that McCarthy needed to bounce back from “The Cobbler,” then he’s certainly achieved it, and then some.