Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” is so well acted down to its tiniest role that one of the best character actors in American movies, working unbilled, comes close to stealing his scenes playing nothing but a voice on the telephone.
The actor is the extraordinary Richard Jenkins, who starred in a previous McCarthy film called “The Visitor.” He plays an authority on priestly sexual abusers, an expert contacted for deep background by the Boston Globe Spotlight team of investigative reporters.
He’s the guy who tells them, in effect, not to be too full of themselves because the number of pedophiles they’ve uncovered in the Boston priesthood has climbed into the teens.
Why not? Because statistically the number of them among Boston’s priestly population is probably closer to 90. He’s the one who tells them of his research into all priests, including those miscreants whose growth was “psychosexually stunted” at the 12- or 13-year-old level.
“Spotlight” is the story of how the Boston Globe broke one of the most shocking stories of the past 20 years.
Stories of priestly pedophilia are still having a global effect on the church. It is universally thought to be one of the reasons Catholics currently have a reformist pope.
It is the truest film I’ve ever seen about journalism. I say that because I think it is absolutely the most authentic, not the best, film ever made about journalism. That has long been one of the great cinematic subjects, going all the way back to “His Girl Friday,” “The Front Page” and “Call Northside 777.”
Strictly as a film, Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” is better because it has unbeatable cinematic virtues – cinematography by the legendary Gordon Willis and good lead performances by 24-carat gold movie stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman who, along with everything else they’re doing on screen, are doing a bang-up job of being Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman.
By contrast, the truly phenomenal cast of “Spotlight” is actively engaged in being actors rather than gilt-edged movie stars. They’re playing the roles of real journalists, not the already mythological dragon-slaying young reportorial Galahads that Woodward and Bernstein were when “All the President’s Men” was made. (I once had a wildly promising young female journalist tell me that, along with Woodstein’s doggedness and journalistic dedication, I shouldn’t forget to take into account they were “cute,” too.)
Professional journalists will be stunned at how much verisimilitude there is in McCarthy’s rendering of investigative procedure for the Boston Globe Spotlight section team that eventually produced 600 articles on priestly pedophilia and was awarded a well-earned Pulitzer Prize.
Michael Keaton plays Walter “Robby” Robinson, the team leader. John Slattery (“Mad Men”) plays his boss, Ben Bradlee Jr., who spends a long time very skeptical about the story his underlings are gung-ho for. Rachel McAdams plays Globe reporter Sacha Pfeiffer; Mark Ruffalo plays a jumpy, twitchy, aggressive Michael Rezendes; and Liev Schrieber is terrific as the outsider in this tale, Marty Baron, the Globe’s new Jewish editor-in-chief from Florida. He’s a man whose background couldn’t be more different from his editors’ and reporters’, which is why he wants them pursuing all priestly miscreants far up the food chain into the “system” that made them possible, whatever the heck it was.
And where did Baron get the idea in the first place? From a local column written by Globe columnist Ellen McNamara. “Spotlight” is so disingenuously skewed to the hard reality of journalistic procedure that it neglects to mention that McNamara – who now teaches at Brandeis – had already won a Pulitzer in 1997 for her work as a fearless columnist.
A wise new editor from Florida was simply paying very close attention to the skills of his new staff.
Stanley Tucci plays a lawyer sitting on a gold mine of information of a sort that investigative journalists yearn for. Jamey Sheridan and “CSI’s” Paul Guilfoyle play church apologists. Len Cariou plays Cardinal Law. The cast here is utterly amazing.
That is the gutsy essence of McCarthy’s achievement here. He knew what his cast members could do and trusted them. They, in turn, clearly rejoiced in working for another working actor.
When the investigations begin to bear fruit and find actual victims of priestly abuse – not to mention the priests themselves – a mammoth jolt of pure electricity suddenly runs through the film and never subsides.
These are horrifying human tales, puzzling ones. They are the heart of what the Globe did. But it was Baron’s insistence on understanding just what the devil the “system” was that made it possible for the Globe to uncover how routinely priests were simply reassigned to new parishes full of new potential victims.
A tremendous movie, certain to be one of the Oscar nominees for best of the year.
I have one tiny reservation: the movie’s forced naivete and ignorance about priestly misconduct doesn’t quite match that of any grown-up practicing Catholic I’ve ever known. Priestly misconduct has been part of Catholic rumor among the young since I was a boy.
But then, yes, I know, it’s only a movie.
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup
Director: Tom McCarthy
Running time: 128 minutes
Rating: R for language and very adult themes.
The Lowdown: The story of the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of priestly pedophilia in Boston and subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church.