Though it’s a good movie anyway, Spotlight has an almost bullet proof subject matter. It’s about the Boston Globe’s 2002 investigative report on sexual abuse by Catholic priests in the city and, as we learn later, all around the planet. In the film, an expert on the subject estimates that six percent of Catholic priests were predatory pedophiles, which meant there were about 90 loose in Boston. Even when the movie goes flat in a few scenes, or feels deadened by Howard Shore's maudlin score, you’ll root for these dogged reporters to shine some light on the horrible actions of a centuries old institution.
In Spotlight, the name of a Globe department that investigated shoddy construction sites, the mistreatment of mentally ill state hospital patients and the like, Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, a veteran editor who refers to himself as a “player coach.” He’s handed, quite out of the blue, a story that will upset the city, one involving the allegation that several pedophile priests had been protected by the Boston Archdiocese. Keaton’s team of investigative reporters includes Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, who seems like a doufus at first but turns out to be the hardworking ace of the staff. The team digs up some grisly information, with the reluctant help of local prosecutor Mitchell Garabedian (played to twitchy perfection by Stanley Tucci) who has been working with victims of abuse for years. As the Globe investigation goes deeper, the whole story gives one a sick feeling. It’s like learning the city had secretly been controlled by a giant black tarantula living in the sewers.
The investigation doesn’t go smoothly. Victims are hesitant to come forward, and the church’s stronghold on the city seems unbreakable. The events of 9/11 throw the Globe team into turmoil, putting the investigation on hold. This creates anxiety on the part of Ruffalo, who fears a lull in the investigation will give the Globe’s rival, the Herald, a chance to scoop them. Ironically, pedophile priests would’ve been right up the Herald’s alley.
I won’t reveal much more of the story – it’s all public record, anyway – but I must add that this taut, intelligent, well-acted movie is occasionally marred by, of all things, its own good taste. Director Tom McCarthy, who also co-wrote the screenplay, keeps the vileness of the subject in the back corners of the film. Can one make a movie about the holocaust without showing a few Nazis? That’s what McCarthy attempts with Spotlight, and though I understand why – he wants to show the diligence of the Globe reporters and not distract from their story with what could be perceived as cheap melodrama – I think this makes the film, in the parlance of reporters, a bit “thin.” I only say this because the movie is most alive when a few victims come forth. The journalists are so buttoned up and stiff that the victims, with their bitterness and neurosis, give the movie it’s only color and energy. Otherwise, Spotlight would be two hours of Keaton scratching his head, and Ruffalo squinting, Renée Zellweger style.
Still, aside from the occasional dryness of the storytelling (as dry as a Globe editorial, mind you), the movie has many virtues. The Catholic church, for instance, gets its well-deserved lumps. McCarthy was also smart to avoid creating any side fluff to help make the story more palatable, like an interoffice romance. Instead, the Globe writers are shown as meticulous professionals, moving cautiously. Keaton trenchantly portrays a newsroom old-timer who has to keep his staff grounded, even as the story threatens to boil over. It’s inspiring that the shuck and jive of Keaton’s early career has been replaced with the reserve and stoicism of a top character actor.
The only trouble is that, as good as Keaton is, the rest of the Globe characters aren’t given much to do. They scribble in their notebooks, they furrow their brows, they eat pizza. Sometimes they yell, “Damn right we’ll publish this story!” One reminisces about to going to church with her nana, not knowing that anyone over the age of five who uses the word “nana” should be kicked. Ruffalo verges on a good performance, until you realize that most of the drama around him involves cheesy devices, like Ruffalo running through the streets for a cab, or having courthouse doors slamming on him. This, I suppose, is better than Liv Schreiber as Keaton’s boss Marty Baron, who is borderline comatose. But there are great performances in the smaller roles, such as Neal Huff as the nervous head of a victim’s advocacy group, as well as nice turns from John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Brian d’Arcy James, and Jamey Sheridan. The real scene stealer, though, is Richard O’Rourke as an ex-priest who is briefly interviewed at his home. He seems so creepily out of touch that he happily admits to “messing around” with the kids. But the scene ends quickly, as if McCarthy feared showing or saying too much.
I also wonder about a confession made by Robinson late in the film, that he had published a pedophile priest story years earlier. When asked why there’d been no follow-up, he sheepishly says, “I don’t know.” He’s given a pass because of the stellar job he did in 2002, which eventually earned the Globe a Pulitzer Prize, but I wonder if he knew more than he was letting on. I’d say we still don’t know the whole story. Maybe we know, say, six percent.