Review: Spotlight Is Spot-On

By Valerie Kalfrin · December 7, 2015

Reporters and cops have more in common than they realize, a source told me when I was a crime journalist. Both consider their jobs a calling, and both think they’re on the side of the angels.

Whatever angels and callings are in the film Spotlight, none are explicitly stated. The Boston Globe reporters in this film based on actual events seem as real as their desks, which look at least a decade older than the film’s 2001 time frame and are piled high with clutter. They don’t discuss how investigating whether the local Archdiocese shielded priests who sexually abused children for decades will sell papers or lead to website clicks, job security or accolades. They just know the story needs to be told—and as they do, at least one of them wonders what took them so long.

That low-key manner is one of the film’s strengths, as is its script, co-written by director Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) and Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate and TV’s The West Wing and Fringe). The script recently won a Hollywood Film Award and is a marvel of conveying a dense amount of information and characterization with intelligence, grace, and a surprising amount of tension. The Globe’s Spotlight investigative team won a 2003 Pulitzer Prize for its stories about the sex abuse and cover-up, which also led to widespread reforms within the Catholic Church. But even if viewers know this, watching how the threads come together is gripping.

McCarthy has said he was influenced by films such as All the President’s Men, as well as Sidney Lumet’s directing style in 1982’s The Verdict. For the most part, he and Singer seem to have taken advice I received as a young reporter that when you have a powerful story, just let it tell itself.

We first meet the Spotlight team as the Globe gets a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), fresh from the Miami Herald—and a Jew, clucks more than one person in the heavily Catholic, “Bah-ston” newsroom. He cut 15 percent of the Herald staff, office gossip says, foreshadowing if not layoffs at theGlobe, others industrywide in the years ahead.

A fresh eye on the local news, Baron sees a column in the Globe about an ex-priest, John J. Geoghan, being sued by 84 people who say he sexually abused them. Although the paper covered Geoghan’s criminal arrest and those of other priests, Baron suggests a longer view: Did the Archdiocese and Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) know they had a problem?

For journalists, this the best film since All the President’s Men to offer a time capsule of how the job’s done. The team combs through thousands of pages of documents, visits the courthouse, knocks on doors, makes phone calls, meets victims for coffee. They get doors slammed in their faces and take notes in staff meetings out of habit. They drive older cars and wear clothes that don’t scream high fashion. (The Buffalo News praised the film’s ill-fitting wardrobe.)

Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) is the youngest on the team, and the only woman; McAdams plays her as bright, earnest and sincere. She’s the first female journalist on film I can recall in ages who doesn’t sleep with anyone to advance the story, doesn’t cross her legs in a too-short skirt or let Erin Brockovich-like tops do the talking.

Reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) has the fire of someone whose passion is the job—he mentions a wife and wears a wedding ring, but lives in the type of place no man does unless he’s married to his work. He builds rapport with the victims’ lawyer (Stanley Tucci), who first criticizes the Globe for ignoring this story in a way the alternative weekly, The Boston Phoenix, hasn’t. Brian d’Arcy James (TV’s Smash, The Big C) rounds out the team as family man Matt Carroll.

All are Catholic to some degree, people of faith both in God and in what they do—and a story like this hurts. Sacha stops going to church with her Nana because she’s angry about what they’ve found in their reporting. Mike is angry, too; he always thought he’d go back to church someday, and he’s upset by the disillusionment that takes that away. Matt worries about suspected pedophile priests living around children. Team editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Marty emphasize caution: They need to nail down the scope of this before they publish, or else the Archdiocese can denounce it as “a few bad apples,” as it’s previously done.

The film doesn’t give Cardinal Law’s side of things; he declined to speak to the team for its initial stories. (Law resigned in real life after the scandal broke; Vatican Radio and the Archdiocese’s current leader, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, have praised the film.) Law is shown on TV with kind words in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, which force the team off the story for weeks. It’s an extreme example of the pressures of daily journalism—there’s always a more-pressing story, making chipping away at one as vast as this a challenge.

The film seems so spot-on that the few times events seem tweaked for drama stand out. Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), who by 2003 was a lead attorney in the sex-abuse scandal, winning an $85 million settlement from the Archdiocese for more than 500 victims, comes across as initially satisfied with “a sit-down with the bishop and a little dough.” Mike, sent to Florida on a 9/11 story, hurries back to Boston for an important court filing—could no one else on the team go to the courthouse?

But these are quibbles. Watching the presses roll in Spotlight, some journalism colleagues told me they felt like crying. Part of it was the pride of a job well done, and also feeling wistful. The world will roll on, people will continue to do bad things, one guy will lean on another guy, as one character says, and soon a whole town looks the other way.

It’s vital to have people who draw those connections and shine that spotlight. Unfortunately, this film, which so ably demonstrates why, arrives at a time in journalism when so many newspapers have turned the lights out.