I was at a news training conference last month in Illinois, and one of the seminars was a class on data journalism taught by an award-winning investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune. As he went over how to dig into public records and set up Excel spreadsheets, he could sense his pupils' attention wandering across the hall, where we could hear loud music emanating from the video production class going on at the same time.
He mock-implored us to stick with him. "I know you all want to be across the hall," he said, then pointed at his spreadsheet. "But this is the good stuff."
Tom McCarthy's magnificent "Spotlight" goes a long way towards making his case for him. The film takes the dogged, persistent, mundane work of old school newspaper reporting — digging through records, interviewing people, connecting dots — and makes it the stuff of high drama, exciting and even heroic.
The screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer sticks obsessively to the facts of the yearlong investigation that a team of Boston Globe reporters conducted in 2001 into allegations that the Catholic Church was covering up priest abuses, settling privately with victims and quietly shuttling pedophiles off to other parishes. It's one of the best films of the year.
The film starts in the Globe newsroom, where the reporters are all gathered around to eat cake and celebrate the departure of one of its reporters. Trust me, they'll be eating a lot more cake in the next few years. A big AOL billboard looms over the reporters' parking lot, a harbinger of the Internet revolution to come.
But this was before all that, when papers like the Globe were flush with profit and able to fund a special investigations team like the Spotlight unit, which operates independently from the rest of the newsroom, often taking months to report a story. The Spotlight team is led by self-described "player-coach" Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and its reporters (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian D'Arcy James) don't even tell their colleagues what they're working on.
When the Globe gets a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), Robinson braces himself for cost-cutting measures. Instead, Baron, a quiet and deliberate figure, urges the Spotlight team to look into the allegations of a Church cover-up that goes all the way up to Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). They start chipping away at the story, interviewing victims and tracking the whereabouts of accused priests. McCarthy and Singer don't sensationalize any of this, instead showing us the quiet thrill of discovery as the reporters, often working on different strands of the same story, make progress step by step. They're knights in button-down shirts and Dockers, relentless in searching for the truth.
With that thrill comes a certain horror as they realize just how big a story they've sunk their teeth into, how widespread the problem is. In one harrowing scene, one of the reporters is at his kitchen table, poring over addresses of "halfway houses" where abusive priests are quietly stashed away by the church. Then he dashes out the door, and the camera tracks him as he runs down the street and around the corner — to the address of one of those houses. The story hits that close to home.
But as the investigation goes deeper, it also turns back towards the Boston Globe in an interesting way, as the reporters — Robinson in particular, in a terrific Keaton performance — start to realize that they've had all the pieces of the story in front of them for years. Why didn't anyone think to put them together? The truth, deep down, is that they didn't want to take on the powerful diocese, and it took an outsider like Baron to make it happen.
"Spotlight" is a loving ode to professional journalism, but it's also a sadly wise film about the way that big institutions, including the media, consciously and unconsciously protect each other. There's a scene where Ruffalo's character, a Portuguese-American reporter named Mike Rezendes, is sitting down with an Armenian-American lawyer named Mitchel Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), who has represented abused kids against the church. Both are outsiders in an Irish-American city. "This city. These people. They never let you forget that they're on the inside," Garabedian fumes.
McCarthy is a writer-director who has had a string of thoughtful character pieces ("Win Win," "The Station Agent"), and one huge misfire in "The Cobbler" with Adam Sandler. "Spotlight" is more ambitious in scope and subject matter than anything he's done before, but his skill at nuance and understatement serves him well here.
"Spotlight" is decidedly, purposefully unflashy, which does right by the reporters' work. There's only one scene where a character bursts into the sort of impassioned newsroom speech you usually get in movies about journalism — and that character is later proven wrong.
Instead, "Spotlight" sticks to the record, masterfully stringing small details together into something powerful and meaningful. This is the good stuff.