Elements of a good police procedural, parts of “All the President’s Men,” yes, you’ll recognize them. But “Spotlight” is its very own work of compelling storytelling. The only thing harder than watching it, once you’ve put it in the DVD player, is not watching it.
This is the story — the true story — of The Boston Globe’s investigative reporting of the clergy child sex abuse scandal that rocked the Boston archdiocese in 2002, then the nation, then countries worldwide. Like the loose thread that, once tugged, pulls apart an entire sweater, you follow the Globe’s investigative team as they bump into a lead like children walking in the dark. That lead is variously juggled, bobbled, dropped and, finally, examined — another day in the newsroom.
You watch as the newspaper’s Spotlight team gradually comes to understand that abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area is both widespread and covered up. Covered up by Cardinal Law, the archbishop of Boston; by the powers that be (both lay and clerical in this heavily Catholic city); and even — get this! — by The Globe itself … at least at first.
The big actors do a bang-up job, but before we get to them, let us now praise unknown actors. The extras, walk-on, cameos and passing encounters with the wounded and guarded give poignant credibility to this tale of the systemic betrayal of innocence. The big names are fully worthy of their bigness: Mark Ruffalo is the rumpled, hard-charging reporter who would piss off the Good Humor Man if the Good Humor Man stood in the way of a scoop; Michael Keaton (Hey! Wasn’t he the metro editor in the scoop-hungry “The Paper” back in 1990?) gives a balanced performance as the Spotlight editor who has to rein in his team and the raised-in-the parish Catholic who is about to blasphemously bomb the bishopric; Rachel McAdams is determinedly not too pretty (her roots show) as the conscientious reporter who digs, then digs some more; Stanley Tucci (has he won an Oscar yet?) is super as the attorney for the abused and Liev Schreiber, as the new-to-Boston editor, is simply commanding as the sharp, deliberate, slightly nerdy editor who — Jewish, a bachelor and not interested in the Sox — drives the team forward heedless of all the xenophobic, Emerald Isle anti-Semitism that is whispered his way.
Believing, at first, that they are reporting on a single instance of the cardinal covering for a pedophile, the Spotlight team uncovers — through door-to-door gumshoe work, tips, aggressive digging and reading their own clips — that it’s big, it’s been going on a long time and that a skunk at a picnic is a guest of honor compared to what they are about to be in a very Catholic city.
“Spotlight,” which won the Oscar for Best Picture, is highly recommended.