The year is not over, but I’ve already seen my favorite film of 2015. It’s Thomas McCarthy’s brilliant, responsible, galvanizing and unforgettable Spotlight, about the honesty, courage and decency of the four-man team of investigative reporters who researched, exposed and published the truth about the 2001 sex abuse scandals in the Catholic church in the respected “Spotlight” section of the Boston Globe. From 13 original priests found guilty in the Massachusetts diocese, the number expanded by 2002 to include 249 priests and 1,000 victims, and the impact of the coverage went global, leading to the eventual exposure of more than 670 pedophile priests throughout the world. The reportage won the Pulitzer Prize. At a time when the future of newspapers is in dire jeopardy, this amazing film captures the difficulty and the importance of what the craft of journalism is all about. In the noble tradition of Deadline U.S.A., Frost/Nixon, Truth and especially All the President’s Men, it also proves the importance of holding powerful institutions accountable in the press. Gripping, suspenseful as a murder mystery and a total movie-going experience, Spotlight is one hell of a great motion picture.
Written by: Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer
The painstakingly researched script by Josh Singer and writer-director Mr. McCarthy begins with the arrival of new Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) at a time when the paper was already suffering budget cuts from its owners, the New York Times Co. Baron, a Jewish outsider from Florida who suddenly finds himself in a city where his paper’s subscriber base is 53 percent Catholic, listens patiently as his publisher warns, “You don’t want to piss them off,” then immediately starts pushing his sleuths in the “Spotlight” section to chase allegations of sex abuse among the Catholic clergy. Trouble begins immediately, when he looks up an old column about a local priest accused of abusing 80 kids and finds to his amazement that the story was buried. Sensing a much bigger story than just a group of local priests having sex with minors—maybe even a psycho-sexual pandemic inside the Catholic church itself—Baron sues to reopen sealed documents, telling his crackerjack reporters to pursue the investigation as an assignment, not just another story idea. Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James play the real-life reporters who, although Catholics themselves, discover to their horror that allegations of the clergy’s misconduct against minors have long been “handled” by the Church by simply moving accused priests to other parishes on “sick leave” to avoid lawsuits and make the story go away. The investigation goes on for months, pushing the journalists’ endurance to the limit as they peel away layers of the scandal like an onion.
Scene after scene divulges shocking information. The more the members of the “Spotlight” team learn from the gargantuan details, the more they begin to come alive as individuals. You knock on doors of the victims who are reluctant to come forward after the time limits on their nightmares have expired. You listen in on interviews with corrupt lawyers, damaged survivors whose settlements from the Church have mysteriously disappeared with no paper trail, Bostonians of differing opinions who try to help and hinder the progress of the story, which grows until it reaches all the way to the Vatican. You meet amiable but crafty Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou), the head honcho who pretends to support freedom of the press but was later found guilty of hushing up the cases, himself now “re-assigned” to Italy, where he works under the protection of the Vatican. The movie was shot in sound bites and segments, but somehow all of the pieces fit seamlessly and with blunt impact. Best of all, you share the labyrinthine process by which the news is gathered and collated into front-page headlines that can change the course of history.
Meanwhile, Spotlight is also a massive compilation of direction, editing and writing that will surely be remembered in the coming awards season. Inspired performances by a superb ensemble cast add ballast and equilibrium to a compelling film that furnishes unimpeachable proof why the future of print journalism must be secured, embraced and protected. Thinking people everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to this film—and to the actual “Spotlight” team that made it possible. Nothing else I’ve seen this year surpasses it.