Newspapers have gone through such a rough patch in recent years that “Spotlight” almost feels like something out of another decade, a time when reporters and editors were valued as good guys concerned with the common welfare.
This docudrama from writer/director Tom McCarthy (“The Station Agent,” “The Visitor”) describes how the four-person staff of The Boston Globe‘s Spotlight team — which specialized in investigative reporting — brought to the world’s attention a massive sexual abuse case. They revealed how leaders of Boston’s Roman Catholic Diocese for at least 30 years kept reassigning pedophile priests to new parishes where they could abuse even more children.
Without the work of the Spotlight crew, that horrendous practice might never have been exposed or addressed.
The four members of the team are played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian D’arcy James. They all deliver understated, believable, utterly non-glamorous performances without a trace of showboating or pumped-up emoting. This is egoless acting (like the Royals play egoless baseball).
What makes “Spotlight” so remarkable is that it is a hugely effective drama without the usual dramatic bells and whistles.
This is a story of people who doggedly pore over public records looking for evidence. Who must be tough enough to go toe to toe with uncooperative lawyers and sensitive enough to coax testimony out of traumatized sexual abuse victims.
Who are willing to defy the single strongest element in Boston’s power structure, the Church.
“The Church thinks in centuries,” a reporter is cautioned. “Does your paper have the power to take that on?”
Document by document, interview by interview, the Spotlight team assembles its case. It should be boring. Instead it’s riveting.
In large part it’s because of a cast of unknowns playing abuse victims. These terrific (though unacknowledged) actors present the devastating human fallout of abuse, while letting us know how it happened.
“How do you say no to God?” one survivor (Neal Huff) says of his relationship with a predatory priest.
“Spotlight” is packed with well-known faces — Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, and Len Cariou (as Cardinal Bernard Law). And here’s a case where everyone involved seems to believe that the story they’re telling is more important than their screen time.
Moving silently and efficiently behind it all is McCarthy, who has made an intimate film about a devastating outrage.