The film opens at a cop shop in Boston in 1976. Some children are with their mother and a priest, who is trying to get charges against another priest dropped. When a policeman says it will be hard to keep the story out of the press when it goes to arraignment, his colleague retorts with “what arraignment?”
Fast forward to 2001 and we are in the offices of the Boston Globe. Michael Keaton is Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, who leads a team of investigative journalists (Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) for a part of the paper called Spotlight. When the new boss Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) arrives, the Spotlight staff are concerned they could be cut. After all, Baron is “a Jew, unmarried and doesn’t like baseball” – how interested can he be in keeping them on? It turns out that he’s very interested.
Taking on a story of a priest accused of child abuse, the story escalates into something on a much larger and systematic scale. In a predominantly Catholic city, and with a 53% Catholic readership, the paper is taking a big risk.
Everything in this newspaper office is familiar to anyone who has seen films from All the President’s Men to Zodiac. We get to see journalists speeding down the Globe’s corridors and hunting down information in archives and tribunals. We have eureka moments and scenes fraught with tension. These overlaps with other films of the oeuvre include the principal actors: Mark Ruffalo was in Zodiac, Michael Keaton has played journalists on at least two previous occasions and Rachel McAdams was a hack in State of Play. We even get to see the story being rolled out on the printing machines before being whisked away by Boston Globe trucks.
This is in no way a criticism: Spotlight might not have any new tricks up its sleeve, but McCarthy is happy to tell a true story and tell it well. The cast work superbly as a collective: Ruffalo in particular, usually so laid back and sleepy, here is all twitches and tics, a man who literally runs to work in the morning. Stanley Tucci has a nice turn as the irascible but honourable lawyer Mitchell Garabedian. In fact, there are famous face popping up all over the place, from John Slattery to Billy Crudup via Paul Guilfoyle.
Interestingly, less-familiar faces play the victims, perhaps to emphasise the victims’ anonymity or to show they represent everyman (or everywoman). Michael Cyril Creighton as Joe, who describes his ordeals to Sacha (McAdams), is particularly fine.
As with Philomena and The Magdalene Sisters, which both premiered here on the Lido in previous festivals, Spotlight shines a light into the heart of the Catholic Church and what it uncovers is dark and sinister. Luckily, the film is a highly palatable affair and McCarthy can count himself in fine company with the likes of Pakula in creating a great movie about great journalism.