Newspapers are dead, except in the hearts of anyone who has ever loved them — which means there are still narrow slivers of hope. One of them now comes to us in the form of a movie: Tom McCarthy's bold, shirtsleeve-sturdy newsroom drama Spotlight, which shows how a team of Boston Globe reporters exposed the scope of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church not just in Boston but worldwide. The film is less an elegy for the art and craft of news reporting than a rallying cry. If journalism were really dying, how could it inspire art this vital? Though it's set in 2001 and early 2002 — practically ancient times in the distressing recent history of newspapers — Spotlight feels both timeless and modern, a dexterously crafted film that could have been made anytime but somehow feels perfect for right now.
This is also the story of the difference an outsider can make in a historically clannish city: The picture opens with a prologue, set in 1976, that dramatizes in fleet shorthand the way the Boston Archdiocese had, for many years, quickly and efficiently dealt with clergy members who'd molested children — by hustling those priests into a "treatment center" and then off to a faraway parish, where the cycle could all too easily be repeated. Flash-forward to the summer of 2001, when the pedigreed Boston Globe gets a new editor, direct from the less highborn Miami Herald: Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) hadn't grown up in Boston, as many Globe reporters and editors had; he was also Jewish, as many Globe reporters and editors were not.
But in his early days at the paper, after reading a seemingly minor piece by columnist Eileen McNamara about the archdiocese's propensity for covering up abuse cases, Baron picks up on a potentially explosive story that seems obvious to him, while everyone else treats it as business as usual. Baron, low-key to an almost comical degree, asks his staff if the church's record of protecting sex offenders isn't something the paper should be looking into. The protests and excuses come from all sides, including deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and longtime reporter and editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), who together lead the paper's Spotlight team, a crew of reporters devoted to long-term investigations. No one wants to tangle with the church in Boston, or with the aggressively affable and unnervingly powerful Cardinal Law (played, with creepy precision, by Len Cariou). But Baron, seemingly with little more than an arched eyebrow, persuades the Spotlight staff to investigate.
In fact, Schreiber deploys an apparently infinite variety of arched eyebrows to construct a complete and marvelously detailed performance. Spotlight is perfectly cast, and the performers melt right into their roles: Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian d'Arcy James play the three Spotlight reporters, Michael Rezendes, Sacha Pfeiffer, and Matty Carroll. Ruffalo plays Rezendes as a man who's given over his body, and not just his mind, to his work: He's all sloping shoulders from too much typing, too much note-taking, too much hands-free phone-cradling. (It may be hard to believe, but Spotlight takes place before cellphones were ubiquitous.) McAdams' Pfeiffer is the understated, empathetic listener who draws the deepest secrets from her subjects, in one case an abuse victim who has suffered privately for years, afraid to come forward: Joe (Michael Cyril Creighton, in a deeply touching, gently modulated performance) freely admits he's gay and says he knew it as a schoolboy, when he was repeatedly molested by a priest he trusted. The upsetting clincher comes when he explains to Pfeiffer how much it meant to him that a priest let him know it was okay to be gay — a supreme example of the sinister power these megalomaniacal "servants of God" could have over innocent kids.
The Spotlight team's research uncovered nearly a hundred sex offenders who had been protected by Cardinal Law and the Boston Archdiocese; after the initial story ran, in January 2002, many more victims who had long remained silent came forward. Still, considering those astonishing results, what's remarkable about Spotlight is how unflashy it is. Reporters aren't always heroes — mistakes come with the territory, and Keaton's Robinson has to reckon with some himself.
Keaton is terrific here — his performance has more depth, more subterranean layers of anguish, than the one he gave in last year's Birdman. Rather than making journalism look glamorous, Spotlight captures its workaday nature: When I look back on the film years from now, I'll picture McAdams' Pfeiffer, dressed in unflattering pants and an untucked shirt — she's clearly not a person who thinks much about what she's wearing — hoofing her way to meet a source at a South End cafe. News reporting means writing, but it also means getting out of the office. You don't crack a story like this one by trolling the Web to see what already-broken news you can repackage.
Spotlight is a great American newspaper movie in the tradition of All the President's Men. It's exhilarating, as that picture was. But the fragile state of newspapers today gives it a more urgent, melancholy context.
Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. Starring Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, and Billy Crudup.