It’s not often that a director manages to follow his worst film with his best, but even if he weren’t rebounding from “The Cobbler,” Tom McCarthy would have a considerable achievement on his hands with “Spotlight,” a superbly controlled and engrossingly detailed account of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the widespread pedophilia scandals and subsequent cover-ups within the Catholic Church. Very much in the “All the President’s Men”/“Zodiac” mold of slow-building, quietly gripping journalistic procedurals, this measured and meticulous ensemble drama sifts through a daunting pile of evidence to expose not just the Church’s horrific cycles of abuse and concealment, but also its uniquely privileged position in a society that failed its victims at myriad personal, spiritual and institutional levels. The result may be more sobering and scrupulous than it is cathartic or revelatory, but with its strong narrative drive and fine cast, “Spotlight” should receive more than a fair hearing with smarthouse audiences worldwide.
As with so many movies drawn from controversial real-life events, any attempt at damage control by the organization under scrutiny could merely wind up boosting the film’s commercial and cultural profile when Open Road releases it Nov. 6 Stateside. As such, Catholic officials might be disinclined to take up arms against “Spotlight” as vocally as they did with “Philomena” (2013), which invited legitimate criticism with its cartoonishly villainous Irish nuns and other dramatic liberties. McCarthy’s picture is all the more authoritative for its comparative restraint: Perhaps realizing the number of different ways they could have tackled a narrative of this density, the director and his co-writer, Josh Singer (“The Fifth Estate”), have shrewdly limited themselves to the journalists’ perspective, ensuring that everything we learn about the scandal comes to us strictly through the Globe’s eyes and ears.
There are no triumphant, lip-smacking confrontations here, no ghoulish rape flashbacks or sensationalistic cutaways to a sinister clerical conspiracy behind closed doors. There is only the slow and steady gathering of information, the painstaking corroboration of hunches and leads, followed by a sort of slow-dawning horror as the sheer scale of the epidemic comes into focus. When a reporter notes that he’d love to see the looks on the faces of Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) and other Boston Archdiocese officials, it’s a measure of the film’s rigor that it refuses to oblige.
The sole exception to this ground rule is the prologue, set on a wintry 1976 night at a Boston police station, where a priest named Father John Geoghan is briefly held and then quietly released into the hands of the Archdiocese. Twenty-seven years later, in July 2001, the horrific consequences of that incident have been brought to light, with allegations that the now-defrocked Geoghan molested more than 80 young boys during his time in the priesthood. The Globe runs a few stories but little follow-up, until newly hired top editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who’s determined to bring a new urgency to the newspaper’s coverage and boost its local impact, turns the beat over to Spotlight, a four-person investigative team led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton).
The search proceeds slowly but on multiple fronts. Hard-headed reporter Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) works doggedly to secure the cooperation of Mitchell Garabedian (a spry Stanley Tucci), the notoriously larger-than-life lawyer who’s representing 86 plaintiffs in the Geoghan case, and also to unseal sensitive documents that the Church has successfully buried until now. Another Spotlight writer, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), digs into abuse claims that have been filed against other local priests, interviewing victims and cornering top attorney Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup, slick), whose own attempts to hold the Church to account have done little to keep them from, in Robinson’s words, “turning child abuse into a cottage industry.”
That thread is pursued still further by reporter Matt Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who discovers an ingenious method of tracing those pedophile priests whose ongoing offenses were not only known but actively enabled by the Archdiocese — usually by sending them to treatment centers before reassigning them to new parishes, where they were free to prey upon children anew. Working with ace d.p. Masanobu Takayanagi, McCarthy directs in a clean, fluid style as he traces the story from the Boston Globe newsroom (the camera often following staffers through the corridors in lengthy tracking shots) to the city’s low-income margins, where priests reliably went after the most vulnerable kids they could find.
As the investigation grinds on for months, with Howard Shore’s score busily marking the passage of time in the background, Robinson and his team realize their job is not just to expose “a few bad apples” (at least 87 priests in the Boston area may be offenders, enough to qualify as a genuine psychiatric phenomenon), but also to prove the existence of a systemic cover-up at the highest levels of Church — one that goes beyond Cardinal Law and extends into the very heart of the Vatican itself. The question becomes not just what to publish but when to publish, as the reporters must figure out how to write the most commanding piece they can before they’re scooped by the competition — or before word leaks back to the Church itself, which is well equipped to fight a public-relations war, especially in Boston.
Even without the onscreen presence of Globe deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), whose father famously steered the Washington Post through Watergate, “All the President’s Men” would be the obvious touchstone here. Like so many films consumed with the minutiae of daily journalism, “Spotlight” is a magnificently nerdy process movie — a tour de force of filing-cabinet cinema, made with absolute assurance that we’ll be held by scene after scene of people talking, taking notes, following tips, hounding sources, poring over records, filling out spreadsheets, and having one door after another slammed in their faces. When the Spotlight investigation is temporarily halted in the wake of 9/11, we’re reminded that the film is also a period piece, set during a time when print journalism had not yet entered its death throes. Like the American remake of “State of Play” (in which McAdams also played a journalist), McCarthy’s film includes a loving montage of a printing press, busily churning out the next morning’s edition — a valedictory sequence that may move old-school journalists in the audience to tears.
The story’s newsgathering focus ultimately creates a level of distance from its subject that works both for the film and against it. As information-system dramas go, “Spotlight” doesn’t have the haunting thematic layers of “Zodiac,” and it never summons the emotional force of the 1991 miniseries “The Boys of St. Vincent,” still the most devastating docudrama ever made about child abuse within the Catholic Church. Many of the victims depicted here — like Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), head of a local survivors’ group, and Joe Crowley (Michael Cyril Creighton), who movingly recalls his treatment at the hands of a priest named Paul Shanley — function in a mostly expository manner, offering up vital but fleeting insights into the psychology of the abusers and the abused, but without taking pride of place in their own story.
Where the film proves extraordinarily perceptive is in its sense of how inextricably the Church has woven itself into the very fabric of Boston life, and how it concealed its corruption for so long by exerting pressure and influence on the city’s legal, political and journalistic institutions. Given the blurrier-than-usual separation of church and state, and the fact that the newspaper’s own readership includes a high percentage of Irish Catholics, it’s no surprise that it falls to an outsider like Baron — a Florida native and the first Jewish editor to take the helm at the Globe — to play hardball with the Archdiocese. If there’s anything that keeps “Spotlight” from devolving into a simplistic heroic-crusaders movie, it’s the filmmakers’ refusal to let the Globe itself off the hook, pointing out the numerous times the paper’s leaders glossed over reports of abuse that landed on their doorstep.
As he demonstrated in films like “The Station Agent” and “The Visitor,” McCarthy has always had a nicely understated touch with actors, and his ensemble here is a model of low-key excellence. The heftiest roles go to Keaton, who presents Robinson as a flawed but strong, soul-searching leader, and Ruffalo, whose passionately committed Rezendes gets to display the most energy and emotional range (including one of the film’s few excessively histrionic moments). McAdams imbues Pfeiffer with sensitivity and grit, while D’Arcy James brings understated shadings to Carroll, a hard-working family man who’s alarmed to learn that a suspected perpetrator is living in his neighborhood.
Slattery, Tucci and Schreiber all shine in small yet vital roles, while the cast also includes sharp work by Jamey Sheridan and Paul Guilfoyle as two Church-connected friends who try to talk Robinson down from his publish-or-parish stance. We recognize them immediately — and perhaps a bit of ourselves — as members of a great swath of decent yet compromised humanity, the proverbial good men who do nothing and allow evil to flourish.