"They knew and they let it happen to kids," says Mark Ruffalo's reporter in Tom McCarthy's new film Spotlight, which examines how the Boston Globe's investigative journalism team uncovered the systematic cover-up of widespread child sex abuse in the Boston Catholic church. The story is fascinating, if troubling; and the ensemble cast is on top-form.
The film opens in 1976 with a Catholic priest being brought into a Boston police station on suspicion of paedophilia, but it is clear that the incident will soon be buried. Then we flash forward a quarter of a century, when a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes the helm of the Globe. He soon finds out about the investigative 'Spotlight' team, which consists of Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes and their editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton). Although the Spotlight crew usually pick their own stories — often researching and working on them for a year before publication — at Baron's directive, they begin to look into a recent case of child abuse by a priest. "He wants to sue the church?" Rezendes asks. "That's great!"
And so begins what will become a year-long, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into a huge scandal and its shocking cover-up that penetrated deep into Boston's religious and legal systems. They talk to the victims, various lawyers — Stanley Tucci is particularly good as the weary and beleaguered but still fierce Mitchell Garabedian — and, of course, people within the church. But the church isn't going down without a fight, especially not in Boston.
Ruffalo's performance really stood out for me (he also gets all the best lines) as the tireless, feisty Rezendes, but McAdams shines too, and Schreiber also does a great job with his subtler turn in a smaller role.
There is a lot of 'reportering' in the film, which, in the wrong hands, could rapidly become dull. There is a scene where the Spotlight team realise that they can identify many more potential abuse cases by tracking the movements of priests over the years using the diocese almanacs. It's a breakthrough but one that requires a large quantity of tedious data entry, and McCarthy never shies away from portraying the huge amount of hard graft investigative work requires.
When I first left the cinema on Monday night, I wondered whether Spotlight — well-executed and absorbing as it is — might be better suited to a short documentary mini-series. Most viewers already know the outcome of the investigation and there wasn't much build-up of dramatic tension, which meant it didn't always feel very cinematic. Later, though, I decided that 2h10 of thoughtfully edited, well-acted feature film was probably the right way to go to tell this story. Spotlight makes compelling, thought-provoking viewing and it is well worth watching.