Posted by Joel Copling on November 12, 2013

Institutions protect their own above all else, and that is true with any institution of which one could possibly think. In "Spotlight," we are presented with three. The first and at the forefront is a quartet of investigative journalists, their bosses, and the profession itself, all of whom, being the film's primary subjects, are under the film's incredibly perceptive microscope. The second is religion--particularly the archdiocesan arm of the Catholic Church, here presented as a bogeyman of sorts (Considering the horrifying truths that come out the investigation by the journalists, though, the choice does make the Church quite ominous). The third is the legal system within the United States and, in the film's canniest commentary, the relationship between church and state.

The setting, after an opening sequence that takes places in 1976 and sets the stage for the twisting-snake tale that follows, is among the suburbs of Boston and in the offices of the Boston Globe in 2001. The renowned newspaper has a new editor in the form of Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, soft-spoken but passionate), who takes the reins with his notebook and pen in hand (One can tell the guy has been brought up on journalistic methods from first glance). He notices that a column about the sexual abuse of six young boys by a local priest hasn't had the proper (or any, really) follow-up. He senses something fishy here, and a little digging by the "Spotlight" team (the quartet of journalists in question) uncovers, not only a nest, but a hive of nasty business.

We also get a sense of each member of this team. Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton, determined and with the cogs always turning behind darting and searching eyes), the editor of this particular branch of the Globe, often disagrees with the newspaper's assistant editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) on how to proceed with this case once the first leads (already interviewed in a previous probing of the facts that turns out to be a more severe misstep than they can imagine) have proved fruiful. Mike Rezendes' (Mark Ruffalo, a ball of nervous energy) interrogative interviews are what largely break the case wide open, Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) worries for children who live down the street from a "facility" that houses the guilty who are sent there to be "cured," and Sacha Pfeiffer's (Rachel McAdams) lapsed faith has the reporter collapsing even further under the weight of all these terrible truths.

The investigation brings Robby to a trio of lawyers who warn him to stay away from the case as if the man is trying to bring down the Mafia and to a Cardinal whose implicity knows few bounds. Mike comes up against the reluctance of an attorney (played by a terrific Stanley Tucci) whose revelation as the film enters its third act is exactly what these reporters need (The judicial entanglement that Mike enters when trying to fulfill this step is as predictable as it is infuriating). Sacha interviews victims of abuse, including one whose view of his own sexuality was greatly altered and another whose background is entirely unexpected before having the chance to come into the light, looking for some weakening in the foundation of the cover-up.

A certain terrorist attack occurs; the investigation is halted for several weeks while the nation mourns and the news media scramble. By the time it gets back into gear, more leads have presented themselves and Mike's article begins to take shape. This is certainly a film that requires one to stay through the end-credits coda, which transforms an already disheartening and infuriating story to deeper levels of these emotions. The problem, as one expert interviewed by Mike over the phone and in strictest confidence states, is a "psychological phenomenon." The number of the guilty among the archdiocese becomes downright alarming, and that's not reckoning the number of other Church officials who knew and didn't follow the Ninth Commandment.

Director Tom McCarthy might be accused by those less friendly to the film of a "workmanlike" effort, but the descriptor is not an automatic pejorative when it comes to films that deal in journalism (which, by the way, is examined here with fairness and balance as both a profession steeped in respect and integrity and as an art as fallible as the next one operated by fallible humans). McCarthy and cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi find just the right visual language with which to tell this story (never showy in style but just striking enough to notice) and let the director's screenplay, co-written by Josh Singer, to dominate the proceedings. This is a motion picture of urgency--electric editing that works like a figurative reporter does--and calm--even amid this fracas. "Spotlight" is one of the best films of the year.

Film Information

Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton (Walter "Robby" Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Brian d'Arcy James (Matt Carroll), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jr.), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Billy Crudup (Eric Macleish).

Directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer.

Rated R (language including sexual references).

128 minutes.

Released in select cities on November 6, 2013.