Entertainment

Spotlight: Gripping real-life newspaper film the best since All the President's Men

Near the close of Spotlight, a compellingly precise drama about a team of Boston newspaper reporters who uncovered a vast sexual abuse scandal involving Catholic clergy, a dogged lawyer helping some of the many victims, Mitch Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), stands opposite one of the journalists, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). Each, in their own way, has been in the trenches, battling the might of the Catholic Church.

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Trailer: Michael Keaton stars in 'Spotlight'

Michael Keaton stars as the head of the team of investigative journalists that probed the Catholic Church's sex abuse cover-ups in Boston.

Reviewer rating

Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Title Spotlight (2015)
Genre Drama
Director Tom McCarthy
Screenwriter
Actors Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams
OFLC rating M
Run Time
Year 2015
Language
Synposis

The true story of how the Boston Globe uncovered the massive scandal of child molestation and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese, shaking the entire Catholic Church to its core.

Full synopsis

"Keep doing your work, Mr Rezendes," Garabedian says. He doesn't call it "good" work, and he doesn't pause for the words to sink in. It's an exhortation as much as it's a compliment, and the idea of doing your work, whatever it demands of you, is central to Tom McCarthy's gripping film. Those who don't, whether paedophile priests or the entitled superiors who cover up their actions, fester and corrupt.

Spotlight, whose workplace rhythms and quiet intensity recalls another real-life news procedural, Alan J. Pakula's 1976 Watergate classic All the President's Men, asks in a very real way the question that superhero movies make mythic: will I use the power given to me for good or evil? The film persuasively covers a great deal of ground, both in terms of story and theme, but it keeps coming back to that query with a determination typical of the film's protagonists.

On The Boston Globe, the Spotlight investigative unit – editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) and reporters Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) – find and report their own stories, but it is the paper's low-key new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who in 2001 suggests they look into claims that the city's Catholic Church's hierarchy did nothing about a paedophile priest.

There is a scene early on where the reporters and one of the Globe's librarians find a crucial resource in the paper's own archives, and the film in one way is about the clash of two institutions, and what a society should expect from the groups who help shape us. You don't have to love newspapers to be taken with Spotlight, but the film, set before the internet was ubiquitous, is a believer in print's worth.

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The credits list more than 200 instances of sexual abuse by Catholic priests worldwide in the years since Spotlight published, and the 22 Australian entries include Melbourne and Sydney. The stories told by the film's victims and their advocates – "cranks" the church labels them – are tragically familiar. "You feel trapped," explains Phil Saviano (Neal Huff), who was repeatedly molested from the age of 11 and is now an adult scarred by not only the devastating experience but the betrayal of being ignored in the decades afterwards.

In these scenes, McCarthy focuses on these traumatised characters, so that their testimony is central not the star's reaction shots. The director, whose last film, the panned Adam Sandler fantasy The Cobbler, wasn't even released here, contrasts their painful isolation with the church's reach. It's intertwined in every facet of Boston life, and Baron is even summoned to an introductory meeting with Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the archbishop the Spotlight team comes to believe covered up crimes within his archdiocese.

Pressure on the paper and its staff comes not from threats but expectations. The establishment take the support of the Catholic-raised editors such as Robinson for granted, promising them to take the matter seriously even as they try to genially brush aside any publicity. "A few bad apples," claims one church fixer, even as the number of abusive priests heads towards 100.

The performances in such circumstances are detailed and initially unobtrusive. Ruffalo is jittery with energy while McAdams is patient and sympathetic, and both play journalists whose personal faith is shaken by what they're hearing. For the more senior Robinson and his boss, Ben Bradlee jnr (John Slattery), there's the growing fear that they missed the story in the years prior. As with All the President's Men, the screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer never assumes that the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation was heroic.

Pfeiffer doorknocks one former paedophile priest, who tells her, "sure I fooled around, but I never felt gratified," with jolly openness, but Spotlight always moves forwards, condemning monstrous wrongs by establishing the systemic failings. It has a subtle but unsparing aesthetic; the most powerful camera shot is to slowly pull back from a busy desk, silently indicating the story's terrible breadth. Keep doing your work, Mr McCarthy.

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