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Spotlight review: Restrained, realistic view of investigative reporting provokes cold fury

Tom McCarthy's take on newspaper investigation into child sex abuse cover-up by Catholic Church a worthy Oscar contender.


At the end of Spotlight, in case you weren't already angry enough, there is a list of all the places around the world in which major cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic clergy have been uncovered since the Spotlight investigative team did its work in Boston in 2002. There are 105 American cities and 102 from other parts of the world. These include a list of 22 places in Australia, from Adelaide to Wollongong.

That's hardly a surprise, given that our own Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse has produced so much harrowing and damning testimony since 2013 – and it's not finished yet.

Wisely, the movie is not about child abuse. It's about how a newspaper, The Boston Globe, had the guts to go after the Catholic Church in a town full of Catholics, knowing that their own heavily Catholic readership would not like it. It's about the way the Catholic Church, a powerful institution in Boston (as everywhere), tried to conceal the knowledge that almost 250 of its priests were implicated in child sexual abuse – some of them repeatedly, in other dioceses, before they were given new positions supervising children in Boston. And it's about a depressing question, one that faces every newspaper journalist: could this story still be done now? How many of the world's great newspapers can still afford to run a unit like Spotlight, the oldest continuous investigative unit in the American media, founded in 1970?


Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent, Win Win) handles this story with restraint and intelligence. This might just be the best newspaper film since All the President's Men in 1976. The reasons are many, but mainly a sense of proportion, by which I mean the movie doesn't treat the reporters as bigger than the story. Mark Ruffalo plays the rumpled Mike Rezendes, a terrier, always ready to fight, but he's no more important than the other reporters. Michael Keaton is the Spotlight team leader, Walter 'Robby' Robinson, who plays golf with some of the people he has to go after.

Rachel McAdams is Sacha Pfeiffer, careful and compassionate, assigned to find the victims. Liev Schreiber is Marty Baron, the first Jewish editor of the Globe, who sets the team running on a story the paper has neglected. John Slattery plays senior editor Ben Bradlee Jr (son of the character that Jason Robards played in All the President's Men). He's initially reluctant to challenge the church, then incensed by what they discover.

McCarthy, who's both an actor and director, did not originate the project. The producers, Nicole Rocklin and Blye Faust, brought him in and gave him their already wide research. McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer (one of the writers on The West Wing) then went to Boston to talk to the real players: reporters, lawyers, victims. Most of the cast members met the characters they had to play. That gives the film confidence in its accuracy, most obviously in the procedural nature of the reporting.

This is one of the better films about what good, hard, deep reporting is like: the long hours, frustrations and knockbacks, the team work and dead ends, the occasional moments of luck and reward. We see here why investigative reporting costs so much and takes so long. We see how hard it is, in emotional terms, to challenge institutions that the reporters themselves may hold in high regard. Most of the reporters are, or were, raised Catholic. So are many of the actors and this director.

That may account for the film's mounting sense of cold fury. Anger fuels the reporters in their work, especially in Ruffalo's character and in the eccentric victims' lawyer played by Stanley Tucci. There's none so dogged as a disappointed idealist.

Spotlight is one of the eight films nominated for best picture this year. It was named best film of 2015 by a number of American critics. I would have included it too, except that it's a 2016 release in Australia. It left me both enraged and saddened. You could make the same movie here, at least about the church's behaviour in transferring priests, rather than reporting them to the police. Some courageous reporting in Australia helped lead to the current Royal Commission, but the film's silent question about the future of newspapers applies here too: for how much longer?

This might just be the best newspaper film since All the President's Men in 1976.