“Mark my words…if it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one.” This rueful truth offered from a Boston lawyer to a Boston journalist linger over Spotlight, Thomas McCarthy’s hot-button fact-based drama that’s ostensibly a lousy-with-heroes story of bringing to light the Catholic Church’s scandalous cover-up and protection of child-abusing priests, but more broadly an indictment of so many willing to look the other way.
Director McCarthy (The Visitor, The Station Agent), who co-wrote Spotlight with Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate), assembled a village to make this uncommonly thoughtful film about institutions religious and journalistic, and the community they serve, in this case Boston. Heading up the highly skilled ensemble cast are familiar actors playing the staff of the Boston Globe, circa 2001: the special “Spotlight” investigative team of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—lapsed Catholics all—and their newly arrived Jewish editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). The muckrakers report to assistant managing editor in charge of investigations Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery of Mad Men), whose lineage helps to link this great newspaper film to another, All the President’s Men.
Dogged reporting turns out to be only part of the story here. The Spotlight team generally chooses its own stories to investigate and report over a long term, but Baron quickly asserts that there’s a lot more under the tip of the iceberg of the sexual abuse story the Globe has thus far only nominally covered. Given the paper’s 53% Catholic subscriber base, Baron’s move is a gutsy one, and though Robinson hesitates, his journalistic pride gets the better of him early and often on the way to unearthing the story and facing his own failings. Robinson employs a lifetime of experience and tries mightily to exploit some choice connections like his buddy Jim Sullivan, a lawyer for the archdiocese rendered achingly credible by Jamey Sheridan. Meanwhile, Robby’s staffers wear down shoe leather interviewing reluctant victims—starting with angry activist Phil Saviano (Neal Huff)—and involved lawyers on both sides, including victims-rights crusader Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci).
McCarthy resists oversimplification of the story, preferring to find deeper truths in the journalistic procedure itself and in the character-rich performances of that ensemble (happily, McCarthy mixes in brilliant unknowns with his star players). The characters and the ballooning scope of the story, as well as the moral and ethical tangles they put on display, put us in mind of the hallowed HBO series The Wire, which focused its final season on journalism (partly in the person of McCarthy, who played an ethically compromised reporter). Smart and stinging, Spotlight excels not only in depicting the stonewalling around the scandal but also the double-talk conversations from within and without the Globe that don’t say—but don’t not say—“Don’t go there.” 20/20 hindsight, and McCarthy’s Spotlight, show we can do better.