The title of the new Tom McCarthy film, “Spotlight,” refers to the investigative section of the Boston Globe. The main action begins in 2001, with the arrival of a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), lately of the Miami Herald. He has lunch with the head of Spotlight, Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), who tells him, “We’re trolling around for our next story,” adding that a year or more can be spent on a single case. Recently, the paper ran a column about a local priest who was charged with abusing children; Baron wonders if this was an isolated incident, or if there might be more to dig up. The movie, to put it mildly, has news for us: there’s more.Robinson has a crew of three at his behest: Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), a quiet family man with a mournful mustache; Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), pushy and restive, the kind of guy who will never stroll across a street when he can hustle and barge; and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). Any film that can make McAdams look resolutely unglamorous is flashing its heavyweight credentials, and “Spotlight” gets bonus points for giving her a thrilling scene in which she struggles to load a dishwasher.
The movie adheres to the downbeat and the dun, with cheerful colors banished from our sight. The exception is a youthful choir, chanting “Silent Night” in a church ablaze with the trappings of Christmas. Even then, we see Rezendes watching, with a sour expression on his mug, and clearly thinking, Are these kids safe?He has a point. The film is a saga of expansion, paced with immense care, demonstrating how the reports of child abuse by Catholic clergy slowly broadened and unfurled; by the time the paper’s exposés were first published, in 2002, Spotlight had uncovered about seventy cases in Boston alone. (In a devastating coda, McCarthy fills the screen with a list of other American cities, and of towns around the world, where similar misdeeds have been revealed.) The telling of the tale is doubly old-fashioned.
First, there are shots of presses rolling and spiffy green trucks carrying bales of the Globe onto the streets; we could be in a cinema in 1945. Second, the events take place in an era when the Internet still seems an accessory rather than a primary tool. As the journalists comb through Massachusetts Church directories, looking for disgraced men of God who were put on sick leave or discreetly transferred to another parish, we get closeups of rulers moving down lines of text. Don’t expect “Spotlight” to play at an imax theatre anytime soon.