A film as passionate about the exposure of the corruption of one institution as it is ferociously proud of the integrity that can be shown by another, Tom McCarthy's scintillating, superb "Spotlight" may just be the best film about inspirational investigative journalism since "All The President's Men." Marking not just a return to form for its director after the wild wobble of "The Cobbler," it's the best film McCarthy has ever made: restrained, intelligent and grown-up, but unfolding with the pacing and rhythm of a thriller. Like the Alan J. Pakula touchpoint it emulates, there are no subplots, little human-interest backstory for our principals and not a hint of anything as crass as love interest or a car chase or even a shady meeting in an underground car park. Instead it is just a fluid, deeply engrossing story of intelligent, dedicated people doing their jobs brilliantly (in a vanishing newspaper environment), and a choral performance showcase for a generous, mutually reinforcing ensemble of actors on inspired form.
This is the story of the 2002 Boston Globe expose on the systemic clerical sexual abuse of children in the Boston area, which opened the floodgates for 249 priests to be publicly accused of molestation within the Archdiocese, for almost 1500 victims to come forward and which led to the resignation of Boston's Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. It's a story that is familiar to us now, but the film tells it anew, and it feels so urgent that it's almost jarring when we see the Twin Towers burning on a TV screen and remember that this took place 15 years ago and is not, in fact, coming to us live. That energy is remarkable, considering how dialogue-driven it is, and how densely populated — not just with actors onscreen but with backstage participants too: priests and lawyers and victims whom we never see but need to recognize nonetheless. It's a bravura accomplishment of the writing then, that though we're being asked to find our way, in two hours, to the heart of a story grown over with decades of secrecy and thorns — a process that took the participants months of hard slog — we never get caught in the brambles.
But the throughlines are kept clean and comprehensible because as grotesque as the crimes are, "Spotlight" is ultimately not about them, but about the heroism of speaking truth to power. And this heroism occurs across the board, in small moments from whistleblowing lawyers, from blowhard DAs and from the victims, like the recovering addict reluctantly telling his story off the record but finally tossing out, almost as an afterthought, "you can use my name." And it comes from unexpected quarters too: even the newspaper's publisher, informed that the Globe is about to embark on the potentially suicidal mission of suing the Catholic Church, just takes a deep breath and says "OK."
But of course, it all comes down to the journalists on the cutting edge — the four Spotlight team members and their two bosses at the paper. Theirs is heroism too, but of the quiet variety that has to go home at the end of a hard day of fact-checking and load the dishwasher. These are crusaders in rumpled suits with coffee cups instead of capes, plodding through the boring legwork that comprises so much of real journalism — making lists, finding almanacs in dusty rooms that stink of dead rat, filling out forms at the courthouse, eating leftover pizza in dismally unkempt apartments. It's another feat, then that the film looks as good as it does: DP Masonobu Takayanagi's photography (which will also be seen in "Black Mass") is never showy but it is graceful. And there is a lot of it: McCarthy seems to have ample material to work from in the edit in order to make montages of people poring over lists of names line by line, not just cinematic (Howard Shore's sensitive piano-based score helps here too), but actually kind of thrilling.
And again, the cast, tasked with delivering all this information and making it feel natural, are remarkable, investing sometimes just the tiniest glances or the shortest of lines with an acreage of personality (it shows that most of them had met, and in some cases trailed, the real-life people they play). Michael Keaton, fresh off his Oscar nomination for "Birdman" will probably get most of the attention as Walter "Robby" Robertson, head of the Globe's Spotlight team. And he is great, with his flat-edged Boston accent and consummate underplaying: when the investigation calls for Robby to endanger a long-standing friendship he does so without hesitation, but you can see how it costs him, with just the smallest flicker in his stoicism. Mark Ruffalo again bursts out of the screen as the twitchy, dog-with-a-bone Michael Rezendes, especially in his scenes with a genius Stanley Tucci, playing the harried, brusque DA who has been alone on the side of the angels so long in this devil's game that his humanism looks more like misanthropy. Rachel McAdams brings her typical resolute intelligence to Sacha Pfeiffer, another of Spotlight's four-person team: whether quietly interviewing abuse victims or caught off guard coming face to face with one of the accused priests, she's entirely human and it's telling how often McCarthy chooses to resolve a scene on a look from her. An intellectually grizzled Liev Schreiber plays the new editor Marty Baron, who makes this case the paper's mission on his very first day — in fact he invests Baron with an enigmatic quiet that drives home the film's point about how it sometimes takes an outsider to be able to get inside a local story. John Slattery gets the droll one-liners, which he delivers brilliantly as Deputy Managing Editor Ben Bradlee Jr, and even in just a his few scenes Billy Crudup is kind of amazing as a lawyer who swings in our sympathies from good guy to bad guy before settling, like so many of these characters, somewhere in between.
The in-between is of course exactly what is usually lacking from any story to touch on an issue as controversial as this one. But if villains aren't villainous here, nor are the heroes unblemished. No one gets out of this unscathed: even the journalists feel a collective weight of guilt for not having delivered this story sooner, and for being part of a deliberately self-deluded community in which civic pride is cited as a reason for not exposing the truth. "If it 'takes a village to raise a child'" says Robby, "it sure as hell takes a village to abuse a child." McCarthy finds time to touch on these and many other avenues and so gives the film both roots and reach — from the priest's "treatment houses" (the setting also for Pablo Larrain's upcoming "The Club") to the legal wizardry that allowed sealed documents to be made public, to the golf games and panelled meeting rooms where deals are struck between powerful men. All of whom, incidentally, believe that in covering up clerical sex abuse, they're doing the right thing "for Boston," but whose handshakes and back-pats ("it's a racket!" exclaims Rezendes) mean that somewhere a priest they know to be a pedophile will go unpunished.
Perhaps McCarthy can be accused of simply replacing religious faith with an equally blind and unshakeable belief in the fifth estate — or at least the newspaper industry of the early aughts for which the film is tinged with genuine nostalgia (Microfiche! Press clippings! An internet that threatens most in terms of the classified section!). But despite that undeniable admiration, McCarthy's sensitive handling really does summon the lightning-in-a-bottle nature of this investigation, persuasively suggesting that only for the perfect alignment of all these exact people in exactly the right positions at exactly the right time, we might still be in the dark. To quote Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." In "Spotlight" talky and dense as it is, you get the absorbing, gripping privilege of being among one such group, and it might just restore your faith. [A-]