The Paper Chase

In Spotlight, reporters dig through dusty files and search court records. It’s thrilling.

Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d'€™Arcy James in SPOTLIGHT.
Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian d’€™Arcy James in Spotlight.

Photo by Kerry Hayes. Image courtesy of Open Road Films.

Movies set in the world of journalism don’t usually concern themselves with the dull but supremely important business of actually reporting the news. Fourth-estate-centric films tend to focus on the glamorous or dangerous world events their protagonists are covering (The Parallax View, The Year of Living Dangerously, All the President’s Men with its Deep Throat intrigue), or satirize the sensationalism of a corrupt media (Ace in the Hole, Network), or throw in a workplace romance just to glory in zingy reporters’ banter (His Girl Friday, Broadcast News). But once in a while a good movie about journalism comes along to remind you that behind every important news story stand the men and women who researched, interviewed, and fact-checked to make it that way.

Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight chronicles the 2001 reporting by a team at the Boston Globe about the widening web of priest sex-abuse scandals throughout the Boston-area archdiocese (and, as would soon become sickeningly clear, around the world). While looking into the case of Father John Geoghan—a serial abuser who was moved from parish to parish by the church for decades, eventually molesting 130 children—the staff of the paper’s Spotlight section, a deep-dive investigative unit headed up by Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), begins to suspect that the scope of the scandal goes way beyond Geoghan himself.

A fluorescent-lit hovel stacked high with yellowing newspapers and used coffee cups, the Spotlight office consists of Robbie and the three reporters he edits: Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a brusque truth-seeker who gnaws at his sources like a dog worrying a bone; Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), whose warmer personal style helps her elicit the long-hidden stories of abuse survivors; and the mild-mannered family man Matty Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who copes with the emotional stress of reporting on child abuse by writing horror fiction on the side. The three of them go after the story from every angle, scheduling sit-downs with the anguished and angry survivors, their slippery lawyers, and the even-more-slippery spokesmen for the church, including a staunchly unforthcoming Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). Meanwhile there are flip-phone calls to answer, shadily suppressed court documents to requisition, and whole library shelves of clergy directories to comb through for evidence of systemic malfeasance.

It’s the kind of action that gets your blood pumping only if you really enjoy research. But McCarthy (who also co-scripted with Josh Singer) finds ways to make each hitch in the reporting process feel as momentous for the audience as it does for the journalists. When Mike—who was taken off the story for a short time after Sept. 11—finally makes it to the courthouse where the church records he needs have been filed, he tears through the staid marble halls at a full sprint. Yes, he’s trying to beat prospective rivals to a major scoop—but he’s also just in that big of a hurry to publish this important story (an urgency that will later put him at odds with Robbie and the Globe’s assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., played by John Slattery).* Both Mike and Sacha, we learn, are lapsed Catholics whose remaining faith has been shaken by the grim revelations they keep uncovering. As for Robbie, he’s busy cashing in favors from a lifetime spent in Boston’s clannish Irish Catholic community, jeopardizing some of his oldest friendships along the way.

Tom McCarthy—an actor-turned-director who’s made such well-received indies as The Station Agent and The Visitorplayed a highly unethical journalist in the fifth season of The Wire, and he seems to have taken some lessons from that show’s creator David Simon. Simon wasn’t involved with Spotlight in any way, but the attention McCarthy’s film pays to journalistic minutiae—not just the details of day-to-day reporting, but the delicate protocol of the editorial pecking order within a large daily newspaper—feels Simon-esque. And though it never tips its hand in this direction, Spotlight clearly shares Simon’s deep respect for the medium of print journalism when it’s done well. The Internet plays a part in this movie’s world, of course—the protagonists spend much of their time in front of computers, and a huge AOL billboard looms over the Globe parking lot to remind us of how new the whole concept was back then. But the most significant turning points in the team’s research process nearly all involve paper, piled by the ream atop desks, bulging from the covers of overladen file folders, or rolling in long sheets through the printing presses that churn out the day’s news in neatly bound bales.

Spotlight the movie, like Spotlight the news team, has no single star player. It’s a democratic operation in which every participant matters, right down to the clerical workers who wheel carts of documents from one Globe department to another. But insofar as the film has an employee of the month, it’s Mark Ruffalo, whose constitutional decency has never served him better. His Mike Rezendes, a working-class Bostonian of Portuguese descent, isn’t always nice—he can be pushy, uncouth and impatient—but he’s always fundamentally good, so we trust his motives even at his most pugnacious. When Mike suffers a crisis of faith near the end of the movie, I feared the film would introduce some flashback revelation about his personal history with abuse—if not his own as a child, perhaps that of someone close to him. It was a kind of moral relief when that moment didn’t come, proof that in this film’s universe, characters could be committed to exposing the church’s deceit simply because it’s their job to uncover the truth when people in power are doing something terribly wrong.

Much of Spotlight takes place in editorial boardrooms, dank library basements (one of them perfumed by a decaying rat), and featureless lawyers’ offices—hardly the exotic, danger-filled locales of your typical thriller. But these cramped information storehouses start to take on a mysterious power of their own as the truth emerges from their stuffy depths. At times, McCarthy’s attempts to find visual action to accompany the barrage of narrative information become a little labored. There’s a strange scene in which we hear Mike’s excited phone call to his editor in voiceover as the camera remains outside the cab that’s driving him, at normal speed, from the courthouse to the Globe building. The disjuncture between the urgency of Ruffalo’s speech and the leisurely pace of the taxi makes for an unintentionally comic effect, as if the car were deliberately ignoring the passionate effusions of its occupant.

Spotlight provides a wealth of exceptional performances, with Keaton bringing a prickly intelligence to the role of the socially adroit, journalistically savvy Robbie. Liev Schreiber plays a buttoned-up company man very unlike his habitual gonzo characters, an editor-in-chief recently brought in from the Miami Herald whom the Spotlight team at first sees as a meddling carpetbagger. Rachel McAdams gets less to do than one might hope for the movie’s only important female cast member, but she makes the most of her limited screen time, letting us see the mounting anxiety and horror behind Sacha’s indefatigably upbeat exterior. A very small subplot about Sacha’s relationship with her fervently Catholic grandmother is as close as Spotlight comes to exploring any of its main characters’ personal lives. I respect McCarthy’s desire to focus on the journalistic process, but I wouldn’t have minded a few more scenes showing how these reporters’ single-minded dedication to this story affected their relationships outside the office.

The closing credits of Spotlight reveal the global scope of the cover-up uncovered by this 2001 news story, the Spotlight team’s hundreds of follow-ups, and the further reporting of other journalists as the story spread. In alphabetical order, we see the names of places around the world where priest abuse scandals have unfolded: multiple cities in Austria, Brazil, Canada, Italy, Kenya, Mexico, Poland, Spain, Tanzania. Countless towns across the U.S. The list goes on for longer than you want to believe possible, taking up several full screens of text. The only thing that could ever be worse than knowing these awful crimes were deliberately concealed by those who could have stopped them? Never knowing they happened in the first place. When you think about it that way, the Spotlight investigative team starts to look as much like heroes as real-life journalists can get.

Correction, Nov. 9, 2015: This article originally misidentified Ben Bradlee Jr. as the publisher of the Boston Globe at the time of the Spotlight investigation. He was the assistant managing editor. (Return.)