“Spotlight” is the truest depiction of journalism since … well, ever.
Even “All the President’s Men,” “Network” and “Broadcast News” — great movies though they are — contained a certain quotient of Hollywood BS. Here is the new standard in cinematic depictions of journalists, along with one of the best films of the year.
This new drama depicting the Boston Globe’s discovery of a massive cover-up of sexually abusive priests never skimps on the facts, or sexes up the individual reporters and editors, or creates composite characters to skirt over the unsavory aspects of some of the real ones.
Why? Because it never has to. The real thing is compelling enough and needs no sprinkling of fictional fairy dust.
Directed by Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent”), who also co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer, “Spotlight” is a great story about the making of a great and tragic story.
McCarthy knows a little about newspapering, since he played an ethically untethered reporter in the last season of the great HBO television series “The Wire.” Having portrayed the worst of the profession, he now shows us the best.
Unless you’ve had your head in a hole, you know where the long tail of the priest molestation story eventually went: widespread sexual abuse by clergy and a coordinated effort by the Catholic Church, nationally and internationally, to cover it up rather than end it. Even the Pope personally apologized.
Here is how the shroud first began to fall.
The most realistic thing about the movie is that it shows how big stories are rarely uncovered by a single person who has the information fall into their lap. It’s almost always a group effort, it takes weeks and months and years of arduous work, and at some point in the investigative process someone will realize they already had the information they needed all along, right under their noses. But it either got swept under the rug or ignored in the rush of daily publishing.
The heroes here are the four-member team of Spotlight, the investigative project unit at the Globe. As the story opens in 2001 a new editor is arriving at the paper, an out-of-towner named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who knows nothing of predominantly Catholic Boston and is an unmarried Jew to boot. He’s given warm handshakes and cockeyed glances, both outside the newsroom and within.
Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the editor of the Spotlight, a self-described “player / coach” who doesn’t just sit in his office and circle misspellings. He’s a man of the town, went to the high school across the street from the Globe. He acts as the glad-hander and bridge to the city’s bastions of respectability — who are hiding vile secrets.
Mark Ruffalo plays Michael Rezendes, the quintessential dogged reporter who seems to have little in his life beyond his phone and notebook. Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, who has a knack for getting people to talk, especially victims of sexual abuse. John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee Jr., the skeptical metro editor, and Brian d’Arcy James is Matt Carroll, the “glue guy” who eventually discovers that some of the accused priests have been living down the street from his family.
Stanley Tucci shines as Mitchell Garabedian, a cantankerous attorney suing the Church on behalf of dozens of victims, who is slow to be recruited to help the intrepid reporters. He’s fought many battles and lost. “I’m not crazy. I’m not paranoid. I’m experienced,” he intones. Also solid are Jamey Sheridan and Billy Crudup as conflicted lawyers and go-betweens.
The film nails, absolutely nails, the rhythms and culture inside a metro newspaper — the petty rivalries, the built-in curiosity about everything, the caustic humor, the deep-seated belief that whatever you’re working on is the most important story in the world. All the little background details are there, from the men’s cheap short-sleeved shirts and ties to the hurried junk food, constant scribbling of notes and long nights away from family. (And how the librarians are the unsung heroes of every newsroom.)
It shows how journalists get reluctant people to talk, through appeals to better nature and sheer persistence, since they have no real power other than the threat of telling the truth. “You want to be on the right side of this,” they say, more than once.
The story of mass abuse of children by priests is one of immense importance, but even it is fleeting in comparison to the story of journalism itself. It’s been called the first draft of history, but what reporting most essentially represents is the intrinsic need to ask questions — to inquire of our communities, our wielders of power, of ourselves.
“Spotlight” is the triumphant depiction of one of mankind’s noblest instincts.