Undoubtedly the best movie about newspaper journalism since All the President’s Men, Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a powerful reminder of the importance of the fourth estate in the investigation and disclosure of malfeasance and misconduct within our social, political and religious institutions on a local, national and international level. In the investigation at the centre of this film, the scale of the impropriety and the number of people impacted by the child sexual abuse of Catholic priests in Boston goes way beyond anything the reporters from The Boston Globe could have imagined. Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) is the leader of a small investigative unit known as Spotlight, a group who have the freedom to choose their own stories and spend a year or more researching before submitting anything for publication; that is until new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives and realises that, with the impending threat of the internet, the unit might soon be unsustainable. When Baron suggests that they delve into the case of a paedophile priest, the Spotlight team’s initial reluctance soon dissipates when the story moves beyond a single perpetrator to rampant sexual abuse amongst the clergy that has been covered up by the most senior members of the church hierarchy.
The film never tries to romanticise the work of the journalists, played here by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James. The work is a hard slog; knocking on doors, camping out in lawyers’ offices, perusing endless archival documents, sitting around waiting for the chance to speak to a potential source of information and spending countless hours trying to get others to confirm what you already know, but can’t yet prove. The fact that the investigation is taking place in Boston is all the more problematic due to the influence of the Catholic Church in the city. Michael Rezendes (Ruffalo) taps lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) for access to the victims he is representing, Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) talks to a representative of a victims support group while Robinson draws upon his friendship with lawyer Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan) in a bid to understand the true extent of the problem. Senior editor Ben Bradlee (John Slattery) is nervous about what the investigation might find and how the newspapers predominantly Catholic readership will respond to such an attack on their church. However, when he learns of the scale of the abuse and the role of senior church officials in covering it up, his misgivings disappear.
It is not surprising that the film has featured prominently in awards season as this is a serious film that not only lifts the lid on a scandal of worldwide reach, but also offers considerable insight into the nature of reporting. Ruffalo and McAdams have been hailed for their performances, but Keaton, d’Arcy James and Tucci are equally good, while Schreiber also impresses as the quiet, contemplative new boss who sets the whole thing into motion. McCarthy never paints the journalists as heroes or the profession as something more glamorous than it really is. Although, he does make it clear just how important an independent news media is in exposing those whose sins might otherwise escape any kind of serious scrutiny. Spotlight is also, to a certain extent, about the city in which it is set; the Boston accents, the neighbourhoods and the considerable influence of the Catholic Church on all aspects of political and social life. Of course, the fact that this is based on true events only serves to increase your level of fury at both the perpetrators and those who abetted in protecting them.
This is not a film about child abuse, it’s a about a small group of people who dared to raise the ire of the Catholic Church by exposing the cover-ups implemented by the organisation to protect paedophile priests. In many cases, the only action the church took was to relocate the offender to another parish. McCarthy was lured to the project by producers Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, who had already researched extensively. Co-writing with Josh Singer (TV’s The West Wing), McCarthy and his cast engaged with the various people involved, from reporters to lawyers to the victims and it shows in the authenticity of the performances. It will probably make you angry, but Spotlight is a beautifully executed examination of the power of the press. If only such a commitment to investigative journalism remained in Australia’s print media landscape. It is scary to think what we might find if our newspapers ever decided to delve a bit deeper.