Mark Ruffalo never walks in “Spotlight.” His very slowest is just shy of a flat out jog. It’s a minor detail, but it’s crucial to appreciating why this studied, smart look at The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the abuses of the Catholic Church is also utterly exhilarating.
This is the kind of simmering process film that makes you want to roll up your sleeves and do some work. To knock on some doors, ask some questions, ignore warnings, crack open a beer, burn the midnight oil and really do something — or maybe that’s just what every journalist watching this film will think.
After all, investigative print journalism isn’t the most cinematic of endeavors. It’s tedious and quiet and there are more dead ends than big revelations. It’s a test of endurance — a long distance run where the finish is not even clear.
Of course, unlike an ongoing investigation, we know the outcome here already. The trick of “Spotlight” is making the potentially unsexy “how they got there” into not only one of the best movies of the year, but one of the best journalism movies of all time.
Spotlight refers to the paper’s four person investigative team responsible for exposing the systematic cover-up of the pedophilia of more than 70 local priests — editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James).
Director Tom McCarthy’s movie presents a realistic, but still absorbing portrait of a close knit town and the well-meaning folks at the local paper who for years remained unwittingly complicit in the rampant abuse of power in the Church. “Spotlight” pulls off the tricky feat of detailing the tick-tock of it all, while also giving due respect to the victims, the enablers and the believers.
It takes the arrival of a true outsider to challenge everyone to look a little harder at what’s happening. In this case, it’s the Globe’s new editor in chief Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). One character who questions his arrival notes he’s an unmarried Jew who hates baseball. But most damning of all — he’s not a local.
Early on, the publisher warns him that over 50 percent of their subscriber base is Catholic. Baron retorts that he thinks they’ll find it interesting, and he proceeds.
There’s a wonderful and all too true resistance in the Globe’s ranks when the investigation gets underway. The paper hasn’t shied away from covering the one off cases over the years, and there’s a well-earned weariness in agitating the Church. Even though many of the reporters refer to themselves as “lapsed” Catholics, the institution remains paramount and the connections run deep.
The Globe editors attend events for Catholic charity, they have sit downs with the leaders of the Boston Archdiocese, and they golf with litigators who settle cases that victims have brought against the Church. A major American city has never seemed like such a small town.
Thankfully the viewer need not have Boston or Catholic roots to care. The thrill of watching a charismatic crew work to accomplish something societally important is enough. This isn’t some hand-wringing, grandstanding, exploitative drama either. Everyone in the ensemble feels very deeply human — they are smart and funny, but serious when they need to be. You know you’re in good company when Stanley Tucci and John Slattery are there as support.
Ruffalo, in particular, uses his full physicality to embody a reporter who’s determined to the point of near mania (though he goes too far in a wet-eyed monologue late in the film). McAdams also shows grit and power both in executing the professional duties of her character and in making the viewer feel how the revelations of the investigation impacts her close relationship with her religious grandmother.
The filmmaking might rely too much on the cheap cutaway — the school bus outside the house of a suspected priest, the laughing kids riding their bicycles in the area, the young choir singing Christmas carols — but that too recedes to the background as you root for the scrappy reporters to defy the system, their families and their town for the greater good.