2015 has been a big year for movies about journalism. We've had a journalist try to get inside the mind of novelist David Foster Wallace in The End Of The Tour, a journalist get snookered by a manipulative psychopath in True Story, and superstar journalists fall for black propaganda in Truth. Director Tom McCarthy's Spotlight is the best of the batch.
The Boston Globe's Spotlight team consisted of four investigative reporters: Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We first meet the team in 2001, as new editor Martin Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over at the paper. Baron pushes the team of reporters, whose specialty is in-depth, long-form stories, to look into the long-simmering reports of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic clergy in the Boston area. As Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) says, Baron is from out of town and Jewish and so has no preconceived notions about the church's oversized role in Boston civic affairs. But once he gets Robinson and his team rolling, they methodically uncover a much bigger story than they set out to write: thousands of children, both boys and girls, who had been molested by Catholic priests all over the world, and the church's sophisticated and pervasive efforts to bury the story and pressure the kids and their parents into lowball settlements and nondisclosure agreements.
Journalists used to be common heroes of films. Superman's alter ego, Clark Kent, is a newspaper man, for example. But after hitting its peak in the 1970s with All The President's Men, the stereotype of the crusading journalist slowly soured onscreen into the rumor-grubbing, ethically challenged hack. Spotlight is very much in the tradition of All The President's Men, using the tricks of the police procedural to dramatize the often tedious job of the investigative reporter. Like a good episode of Law and Order, it's the bit parts that make it work, such as Neal Huff as the manic advocate Phil Saviano. Michael Cyril Creighton is especially good as recovering victim Joe Crowley, who sums up the awful effect the predatory pedophiles had on the children's long-term mental health: "It was the first time in my life anyone had told me it was OK to be gay. And it was a priest."
Keaton, Ruffalo, and McAdams are all extremely good as the core of the reporting team, but the entire ensemble is strong, especially Schreiber, whose low-key portrayal of the editor Baron keeps you guessing right up until the story is published. McCarthy, who co-wrote the script with Josh Singer, manages to tell a dense story with a triple-digit cast of characters while maintaining tension and keeping the pace lively. There are a few missteps, like a late Christmas montage set to a children's choir singing "Silent Night," but the overall effect is tight and occasionally moving. For journalists and people who care about democracy and the value of open society, Spotlight is a master class on how things should be done.