Like “All the President’s Men,” the new Michael Keaton drama is a story about newspaper reporters taking on the establishment. Instead of going after the highest office in the land, as Woodward and Bernstein did in their Watergate exposé, in “Spotlight” Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams play Boston Globe reporters delving into the Catholic Church’s cover-up of abusive priests.
Following a buyout the Boston Globe has a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who assigns the investigative Spotlight bureau to look into a delicate subject, a priest accused of molesting 80 kids. It’s a hot button story in the city of 1500 priests, where 53% of Globe subscribers are Catholic. The plan is to examine sealed documents, which requires legal action. The Bostonians view it as suing the church, a sacrilege in their city, whereas the outsider Baron sees it as simply making sealed documents public.
As the investigation plods along—“ The church thinks in centuries,” says lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), “does your paper have the resources to take that on?”—the story becomes much larger than originally thought, uncovering a far reaching conspiracy that includes not only the church but lawyers and possibly newspapermen as well.
“Spotlight” is set just fourteen years ago, but feels of another age. The internet has, by and large, rendered this kind of methodical reporting obsolete. The door knocking, working-the-phones investigation with months to form and write stories is now the kind of thing that exists only in the movies. We see it all here in detail and much of it is very interesting. The reporter’s investigation allows for huge loads of exposition in the form of interviews with witnesses and victims and exports and while there’s a bit too much, “Are you telling me..?” the slow and steady unveiling of details is compelling stuff.
Director and co-writer Tom McCarthy keeps it simple and straightforward, allowing the occasional “gotcha!” revelations speak for themselves. Clues and information are uncovered slowly, with a minimum of red herrings. The result is portrait of the kind of grunt work the Spotlight team used to break the story, not nearly as flashy or verbose as Aaron Sorkin’s overwritten and over sentimentalized look at news gathering, “The Newsroom.”
Keaton has dialled it down a few notches from his recent turn in “Birdman” while Ruffalo kicks out the jams, all jittery energy and Hulk-like anger.
“Spotlight” is a refreshingly barebones movie that allows the story to provide the fireworks.