There’s a couple of interesting connections between Spotlight, which is the best journalistic procedural of this century, with a couple of other journalism films, most notably All the President’s Men, the best of last century. For one thing, Michael Keaton, who here plays the head of a team of investigative reporters, played a reporter in the enjoyable if relatively lightweight film The Paper. The connection to All the President’s Men is that here John Slattery plays Ben Bradlee, Jr., assistant managing editor of the Boston Globe. Bradlee, of course, is the son of Ben Bradlee, who was the editor of the Washington Post in All the President’s Men, played by Jason Robards.
All that was running through my head, but fortunately comparisons to those other films only burnishes Spotlight, not diminishing it. It’s a crackling good yarn, and showcases some terrific actors in roles that show how dedicated journalists can be. When All the President’s Men, both book and film, came out, they caused a spike in applications at graduate journalism programs. I doubt that happens now, given that journalism is a dicey career, but it made my blood pump to imagine myself as an investigative reporter.
The place is Boston, the year is 2001. A new editor arrives at the Globe. He’s Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). He’s single, Jewish, and doesn’t like baseball, which doesn’t bode well for someone in Boston. His first order of business is to take note of a case in which a priest has been charged with molesting children. The court records are sealed, and he wants them unsealed. “You’re going to sue the Church?” he’s asked a number of times. Essentially, the answer is yes.
Spotlight is the name of a four-person investigative team (it’s the oldest continuing such enterprise in American journalism), headed by Keaton as Walter Robison. Also on the team are Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James. They start with slim leads, but as the film grows their knowledge expands exponentially. One priest turns into thirteen, and eventually it’s ninety, all with the knowledge of the church hierarchy.
All of the reporters were raised Catholic, in a city that is predominantly so. They bump into obstacles at all turns. Ruffalo visits an attorney representing scores of clients who were abused (he’s Stanley Tucci, excellent as always). Victims, now adults, are contacted, and some bravely come forward. As with All the President’s Men, Spotlight is about the shoe leather and the notepads, as we see the grunt work involved in getting a story. Sources must be verified, and timing is critical. There’s always the threat of the rival paper getting the scoop.
Directed by Tom McCarthy, with a script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight hums along like a Swiss watch. I was at no point not engaged, and am lacking in any “buts.” This film is the real thing, and loads of Oscar nominations should follow. I’ll mark it right here that Keaton will win Best Supporting Actor. Not only does he deserve to be nominated, but it will make up for the appalling slight in denying him the statuette last year for Birdman.
The subject matter is not an easy one to digest. Priests molesting children is not a new concept in our society, but it’s never a pleasant thing to think of. Here the reporters, as well as the film, are indicting the system that allows pedophile priests to be moved around for parish to parish, and the cowardly defenders who think that exposing this will lead to loss of faith among the parishioners. A scene in which Keaton talks to an old friend (Paul Guilfoyle), who is a PR man for Boston’s Cardinal Law, says precisely that to Keaton, and Keaton, disgusted, responds, “This is how it happens.”
An early scene has Law (played by Len Cariou) sitting down with Schreiber. He says that he thinks the great institutions of a city must work together. Schreiber disagrees. “I always thought that a newspaper must stand alone.”