Spotlight is rare journey into journalism that gets at the heart of its investigators’ subject without grandstanding the personalities or personal lives of those doing the poking around. Like the classic All the President’s Men and David Fincher’s Zodiac, Spotlight rides the rails of well-known history — in this case, the Catholic pedophilia scandal in Boston — but despite the anticlimactic nature of knowing how it ends, the film unfurls with intrigue, putting the viewer in the seat of those unearthing the unseemly truths, learning in the moment as the moment unfolds. The simple and earnest approach casts a sympathetic, but never maudlin, light on the victims of child sexual abuse during the 1980s and 1990s with a subtle poignancy that ultimately builds to a roar.
At the center of Spotlight looms the tribal, nepotistic nature of Boston, where hushing up crimes is easily accomplished with money and strong-arm tactics. It’s a world where the powerful prey upon the weak, in this case pedophilic priests targeting boys and girls from the city’s vanishing blue-collar neighborhoods. Many of these children were from broken homes without a stable male figure and riddled with substance abuse.
Spotlight takes its name from the Boston Globe investigative team that ultimately uncovered the massive church cover-up. At the center of the film is team editor Walter Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton). Like many Bostonians he was raised Catholic and went to a Catholic high school across the street from the Globe. And it’s not until the arrival of new managing editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a solemn Jew up from Miami, that Robby and the Spotlight crew begin looking at the link between the abuse cases. Although you get the sense that Robby only reluctantly pursues the case at first, he and his team ultimately become dogged pursuers of the truth who are more than willing to go up against the iconic institution of their rearing, an institution protected by money, reach, and power.
Director and co-writer Todd McCarthy, who’s had great success plumbing the heart of everyday human drama with The Station Agent and The Visitor, succeeds again with Spotlight, thanks in part to his ensemble cast, including Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, and Billy Crudup. In the end, McCarthy’s film is about truth and reckoning and the prospect of giving a modicum of vindication to those broken and tormented souls who suffered at the hands of those they most trusted.