Four decades ago, a new generation of journalists wanted to be Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman, or more accurately the Washington Post investigators they played in All the President's Men. Toppling a president, walking red carpets.
Redford-Hoffman, Woodward-Bernstein, the Watergate movie forever linked the pairings, a cultural symbiosis making actors seem important and reporters glamorous. Journalism and movies about it changed, not always for the better.
Spotlight is a rare movie about the profession — and just enough about people in it — that simply feels right, speaking from the inside. It makes me think the next generation of journalists will wish to be Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, or more accurately the real-life Boston Globe reporters they play, Mike Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer.
They're part of a select investigative team in 2002, looking into sexual abuse by Catholic priests, and the Boston archdiocese's subsequent coverups; all the cardinal's men. Comparisons between Tom McCarthy's movie and the late Alan J. Pakula's cerebral thriller are inevitable and well-deserved. McCarthy and a sterling ensemble tell their story the way good reporters write theirs: factual, lean, compelling.
Spotlight doesn't prop up its reporters as self-righteous Sherlocks and crusaders, like so many journalism movies before. They're meticulous about their work but not infallible, as proven by a startling late revelation in McCarthy and Josh Singer's procedural screenplay. Several are Catholic, leading to strained personal values and relationships. They're flawed, in circumstances demanding perfection.
The Globe's Spotlight (the name of the Globe's investigation team) is sicced on the story by new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an awkward sort transplanted from Miami into this tight-knit Boston culture. A few years earlier, the Globe reported on alleged abuse by a local priest with all records sealed. Marty's instinct is that it's part of a long-term coverup.
Spotlight leader Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton, solid) unleashes his bloodhounds, Mike, Sacha and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) into a community of Catholic loyalties and kept secrets. McCarthy's unadorned visual style and to-the-point dialogue accurately reflect their gumshoe duties, in interrogative episodes slowly building a bombshell to publish.
Mike presses the attorney (Stanley Tucci) for 86 alleged victims for assistance in unsealing the documents, and Sacha interviews victims and an attorney (Billy Crudup) profiting from them. Mike discovers a systematic relocation program for accused priests. Each discovery leads to more questions, more unsettling answers.
Spotlight assembles its case methodically, and its emotional punch the same way. Actorly moments that often ring false are few, and McCarthy doesn't resort to flashbacks that would spice up the movie but exploit the issue. No car chases, no dark alley muggings — just journalism as it is, in a medium usually resorting to what it isn't.
The Globe's expose won a 2002 Pulitzer Prize, bringing worldwide attention to sexual abuse in the Catholic church. Therefore, like All the President's Men, there's nothing to spoil and much to admire. And, like Pakula's movie, Spotlight will likely figure into journalism school syllabuses for as long as anyone enrolls.
Contact Steve Persall at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.