"Spotlight" doesn't call attention to itself. Its screenplay is self-effacing, its accomplished direction is intentionally low key, and it encourages its fistful of top actors to blend into an eloquent ensemble.
By unfolding in this quiet yet intensely dramatic way, "Spotlight" fosters the satisfying illusion its powerhouse story is telling itself. Which couldn't be further from the truth.
This is the saga of how the Boston Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for uncovering not only decades of sexual abuse by Catholic priests but also systematic maneuvers by the church's Boston archdiocese to shield the more than 70 perpetrators. "Spotlight" is mightily impressive not only because of the importance of the story it tells but also because of how much effort and skill went into bringing it to the screen in the best possible way.
As befits a story about heroic individuals who just happen to be working journalists, the entire "Spotlight" team understood a key tenet of the profession: If you have a good story, over-hyping it will be counterproductive.
That led everyone, from director Tom McCarthy (who also co-wrote with former "West Wing" writer Josh Singer) through stars Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery and Stanley Tucci, to make sure their presentation was as realistic and straight ahead as they could make it.
A key reason for everyone's concern was that the story "Spotlight" tells is significant twice over. First for its depiction of the uncovering of what proved to be an international scandal, and also for the way it quietly but potently illustrates society's need for old-fashioned investigative journalism, the kind of labor-intensive telling-truth-to-power work that's increasingly in jeopardy.
McCarthy, best known for exceptional small films like "The Station Agent" and the underappreciated "Win Win," takes a step up in scope and ambition with this film. McCarthy also works as an actor and, given that one of his best-known roles was as a corrupt journalist in the final season of "The Wire," there's something poetic about his being in charge here.
McCarthy and his team managed to do what many people, including the journalists depicted, thought was almost impossible. They took a process story, one that is surprisingly accurate about both the physical and psychological ways reporters work, how they tirelessly interview, take endless notes and wade through mountains of material, and he gave it the pace and tension of a police procedural. And they do it without compromising the subtleties of what proved to be a very complicated story.
It was precisely to tell those kinds of stories that the Boston Globe formed the Spotlight unit, the newspaper's four-person investigative team that spent upward of a year thoroughly looking into stories.
Heading the team, and viewing himself as a kind of player-coach, is Walter Robinson. As played with the perfect unobtrusive swagger by Keaton, Robinson is easygoing until he's not, and the way the actor disappears into this unshowy role is as impressive, if not more so, than the pyrotechnics of his "Birdman" performance.
As "Spotlight" opens in July 2001, Robinson and the rest of the staff are worried because a new man, the imperturbable Marty Baron (an astute Schreiber), the rare Globe editor not to grow up in Boston, is about to take over the paper.
In fact, practically the first thing Baron does is tell Robinson he wants Spotlight to focus on the accusations of clergy sexual misconduct. The team (all of whom are lapsed Catholics), as well as the staff in general, symbolized by dubious assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. ("Mad Man's" John Slattery) are well aware of the enormity of what they're taking on. For one thing, 53% of the Globe's subscribers are Catholic and, for another, as someone says, "the Church thinks in terms of centuries."
But reporters, being reporters, end up simply going to work and doing what they do best. Numbers-cruncher Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) gathers data, and Sacha Pfeiffer and Mike Rezendes begin interviewing people, albeit with completely different focuses.
Pfeiffer, empathetically played by the protean McAdams, is a committed, unflappable interviewer with an unfailing human touch, the person who can sit down with the abuse victims and convince them to tell their story to complete strangers.
"When a priest pays attention to you, it's a big deal," one survivor remembers. "How do you say no to God?"
Rezendes, on the other hand, is a classic newspaper type, perfectly captured by Ruffalo, the antsy, driven, true believer reporter who won't let go of a tip or an interview subject. He is matched against the reluctant Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), the victims' attorney, exhausted by years of battling the Church. "I'm not crazy, I'm not paranoid — I'm experienced," he tells Rezendes. "They control everything."
Because it has done its homework, even letting the real-life reporters vet the dialogue for false notes, "Spotlight" is especially good at the dynamics of interviewing, on what happens when reporters say things like, "Do you want to be on the right side of this story when it breaks?"
Honest enough to zing the Globe for neglecting this story for years before it took it on, "Spotlight" is both damning and inspiring, depressing and heartening. Though it's set more than a decade in the past, it's the "All the President's Men" for our time, and, boy, do we need it now.
MPAA rating: R, for some language including sexual references
Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes
Playing: Arclight, Hollywood; Landmark, West Los Angeles