Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight opens with a quick vignette at a Boston police station. Using subtle camera movements and specific acting choices, the subject of the scene becomes clear: a young boy has been molested by a local priest. A green policeman doesn’t seem to understand the protocols, but he watches as the strings get pulled and the wheels get greased, and the offending priest gets whisked away from the police station without consequence. This serves as a preamble to the harrowing story we are about to witness: the rampant sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests, and its systemic cover-up by the Church.
The story picks up fifteen years later at the Boston Globe. The paper has a new editor-in-chief from Miami, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), and he wants to follow-up on a previously reported story about child molestation by a Catholic priest. Most of the team balks at this idea, as it would require the Globe suing the Church for the declassification of some documents. But Baron insists, and puts the Spotlight team on the investigation.
The Spotlight section focuses on a specific story and digs deep, working for months to uncover details and polish a story. The head of the team is Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), and his staff include Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). This ensemble is magnificent, and it is impossible to chose the actor with the most poignant performance. Tasked with this follow-up, the team invigorates the case by talking to a lawyer bringing a suit against the Church (Stanley Tucci), and follow up with the alleged victims of abuse and others involved.
This kind of story lends itself to a dry procedural, but it is remarkable how director Tom McCarthy is able to instill it with all the excitement and tension of a thriller. In one scene, the Spotlight crew discover a collection of books that contain a modicum of critical information. When Robbie realizes the importance of these books, the “Eureka” hangs on his face for a moment before the Spotlight crew start grabbing volumes indiscriminately. It is rousing and wonderful – and it is just three people in a basement looking at a shelf of books.
As the Spotlight crew unravels the story, they are able to incriminate more and more priests, growing the number of accused priests from one to twelve to nearly ninety! All the while, Baron insists that they connect the Church itself in some way in order to prove that this is an institutional practice, that the abuse and its cover-up are standard operating procedure for the Catholic Church. Throughout the investigation there are heart-wrenching scenes of the reporters interviewing victims of abuse. And as more and more authority figures are revealed to be involved in the cover-up, anger and disappointment become the predominant emotions for the audience. The anger even erupts on screen as characters buckle under the gravity of the crimes they are discovering.
In preparation for the backlash of the story, the paper provides a number where readers can register any complaints, while also listing an anonymous tipline for others who have experienced abuse at the hands of a priest. Though you won’t be surprised by which number receives more calls, you may find yourself in tears when the extent of the damage becomes clear as the credits roll.
Spotlight is the best film of the year. Not a single performance is wasted; even the victims who are onscreen for interviews lasting as few as 15 seconds startle with the depth of the pain that they convey. The ensemble cast is one of the best ever assembled, and McCarthy weaves a complicated, nuanced story with the deftness of a seasoned director. Finally, the story champions an essential theme: the dogged pursuit of truth and justice in service of protecting innocence, especially in a world far too comfortable with discretion in service of a “higher” authority.