Review: Spotlight

An incredible ensemble cast uncover the brutal truth in this thrilling paean to investigative journalism at its finest. Both a sucker-punch and a subtle knife.

With the mainstream media the target of a great deal of (often deserved) criticism of late, The Station Agent director Tom McCarthy’s latest, Spotlight, is a salient reminder of the fourth estate’s valuable role in exposing heinous corruption when properly funded and directed.

A hot contender for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars ceremony, this thrilling investigative drama takes us inside the storied offices of The Boston Globe and, in particular, the small team of investigative journalists that lends its codename to the film’s title as they begin to scratch at rumblings of a cover up of child sexual abuse within the Catholic archdiocese.

Barring a telling prologue set in the ‘70s that sees an abusive priest bailed out of lock-up at a police station only for one cop to remark to another that the case will never see the light of day in court, all of the action is restricted to the viewpoint of journalists as they painstakingly follow the leads several decades later. Beginning to uncover the sheer scale of the horror and the extent to which it has been hidden by various powers from the church to its lawyers, the police to the Globe itself, the team is increasingly startled by what they find.

Past reticence to challenge the church in a predominantly working class, Irish Catholic city that treats its local priests like celebrities is overturned when new editor Marty Baron arrives, both an outsider and, as is oft thrown against him, Jewish. A stubbled Liev Schreiber is brilliant in this quietly commanding role in an ensemble piece crowded with brilliantly judged performances.

Michael Keaton is great as Spotlight editor Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson and it’s a shame there was no room for him in this year’s Oscar noms after last year’s near miss for Birdman. Robby reports directly to equally charismatic Mad Men alumni John Slattery as deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr., whose father was executive editor of the Washington Post during the Watergate scandal. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams, both up for Supporting Oscars, join Brian D’Arcy James in rounding out the team as resilient reporters Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll, determined to get to the truth the old fashioned way, hitting the streets, talking to victims and perpetrators, rustling through musty old records, decoding the language used to bury these odious crimes. If that sounds a little dry, far from it. Co-written with Josh Singer (The West Wing/Fringe) this is a gripping procedural in the vein of Alan J. Pakula’s four Oscar-scooping All The President’s Men.

While the reporter’s social lives are left a little vague, falling perhaps a little too neatly into the stereotype of the career-driven obsessives, it serves the densely packed story well. Laden with detail about an industry that only 15 years on is almost unrecognisable, there’s a powerfully telling moment when the world-changing events of 9/11 push the story aside, much to the chagrin of Garabedian and his brave clients, willing to share their most awful experiences. Those that we do encounter are portrayed with stoic dignity that never feels voyeuristic

Len Cariou treads an impeccably fine line as Cardinal Bernard Law, a forcefully cheerfully presence thinly papered over calculating menace without ever tipping into caricature. Also impressive is a slippery Billy Crudup as a lawyer who may or may not be part of the problem and a surprisingly understated Stanley Tucci as infamously OTT lawyer Mitchell Garabedian who has been representing 80 plus victims in an almost one-man crusade. Indeed, even the tiny bit parts shine here, wether it’s the women who man the Globe’s vast archives or Eileen Padua as Pfeiffer’s deeply religious gran. McAdams is on top of her game when meeting with both those who were abused and, in one jaw-dropping moment, an ageing abuser too.

McCarthy, who also played a dodgy journalist in The Wire, has delivered something quite spectacular here, following the intricacies of the story as it morphs from establishing the guilt of one priest, to identifying many more and ultimately following the chain right up to Law and beyond, and the cold horror of the smiling men who turn a blind eye an the passive community who just don’t want it to be true. “It takes a village to raise a child,” says Garabedian, “and it takes a village to abuse one.”

Stephen A Russell @SARussellwords

★★★★1/2

Note: after far-too fraught consideration, I dropped this by half a star at the end of the year.