Spotlight movie review - Tom McCarthy's thriller among films of the year
It's hard to overstate the seismic shock caused by the story that appeared on the front page of the Boston Globe on January 6, 2002. For it alleged that a priest called John J Geoghan had sexually abused at least 130 children over three decades, and that the city's archdiocese had known about him for years and done nothing.
The series of reports that followed involved 19 priests and potentially thousands of victims in a scandal that rocked the American Catholic Church to its core, and this extraordinary work was done by a dogged investigative team called Spotlight: Tom McCarthy's drama tells their story.
Though rumours of sex abuse had been circulating in the city for decades, and one columnist at the Globe, Eileen McNamara, had bravely rattled the Church's cage on the subject, it was only after an outsider took over as editor that the paper really began to pursue the story. Liev Schreiber plays Marty Baron, a Tampa-born journalist who's constantly reminded that he doesn't belong when he assumes the editorship of the Globe.
Neither Irish nor Catholic, Marty is perplexed by Boston's claustrophobic clannishness, and mystified when he visits a suave and smiling Cardinal Bernard F Law (Lou Cariou) and is presented with a Catechism. The implication is clear: the Catholic Church will be watching his every move, and a high level of loyalty to the institution is taken for granted.
But Marty's a Jew, and doesn't care who Law is, and when he reads one of Eileen McNamara's columns about John Geoghan, he asks Spotlight to drop everything else and start investigating.
The team is led by Walter 'Robbie' Robinson (Michael Keaton), a Boston insider who knows everyone who's everyone and plays golf with the Church's top lawyer. But Robbie feels guilty about not having pursued this story in the past, and after some initial misgivings begins driving his team deeper and deeper into a fraught and tricky investigation.
Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d'Arcy James play the dedicated journalists on Robinson's team, who face a wall of hostility when they begin knocking on doors and looking for victims who'll talk. When they discover the existence of sealed documents which could prove Cardinal Law knew about Geoghan and did nothing, they face an uphill battle to obtain them, and their investigations are temporarily derailed by the Twin Towers attack. But as they near the point of no return, Robbie and his team realise that a single mistake could ruin their careers and reputations.
Tom McCarthy spent several years researching the Globe investigations, and it shows: the meticulousness with which he builds his drama mirrors the work of the journalists themselves, who were extensively consulted by the writer/director and his actors. And though the horrific crimes themselves hang heavily over the story, Spotlight is really as much about journalism as it is about clerical cover-ups.
These events took place just 14 years ago, but it's depressingly nostalgic to watch the reporters cold-calling, door-stepping strangers, scouring phone books and blowing the dust off long-forgotten files. This is how journalism used to be done in a time before Google, and I wonder how many newspapers would give a team of four a whole year to build a story these days.
Like All the President's Men, the film with which it must inevitably be compared, Spotlight is not a thriller in the conventional sense, and relies instead on slowly mounting tension, and an underlying atmosphere of dread. There are fine ensemble performances from McAdams, John Slattery, Paul Guilfoyle and Stanley Tucci, but Michael Keaton is Spotlight's secret weapon. He's a powerful actor whose high energy can sometimes overwhelm films, but he's very restrained here, and the tension this creates gives his performance huge intensity.
Spotlight (15A, 119mins)
This week's other releases: Movie reviews: 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, Youth, The 33