Spotlight review: top-notch drama about journalism at its dogged best

The pen is ultimately mightier than the cardinal in this dramatisation of the Boston Globe’s investigation into sex abuse by Catholic church

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Director: Tom McCarthy
Cert: 15A
Genre: Drama
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle, Jamey Sheridan, Len Cariou
Running Time: 1 hr 58 mins

Tom McCarthy’s riveting drama is set a long, long time ago: 2001, when newspapers could still afford to employ investigative teams, often working for months without publishing. Online content is still seen as promotion for the print version. Most chillingly, journalists are still open to astonishment at the prevalence of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

Among the acclaimed Spotlight investigative crew at the Boston Globe, hardened reporters initially can't believe there could be as many as 90 clerical offenders in the city. Given all that has emerged in the past 15 years, few viewers will share their bewilderment.

There is much grim information here. Jimmy LeBlanc, Neal Huff and Michael Cyril, playing survivors of molestation, tell stories that are made all the more depressing by their familiarity. Len Cariou turns Cardinal Law, the Boston church's capo di tutti capi, into a sly politician with a nose for his opponents' weaknesses.

But Spotlight is not really about sexual abuse or the hierarchy's corruptions. More than anything, it is a genuflection before the traditions of investigative journalism. As such, it bears unavoidable comparison with All the President's Men. Both films press home the slow, steady rigour of the profession (Woodward and Bernstein's Deep Throat merely nudged the reporters in interesting directions) and the need to think hard before filing.


As Spotlight reveals, the Globe had previously encountered rumours about sexual abuse and pushed them aside. What finally accelerates the story is the arrival of an outsider to the editorship.

Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a Jewish journalist from outside Massachusetts, is not cowed by the cardinals. He allows the Spotlight team to follow up dangling leads. (The script, by McCarthy and Josh Singer, is brilliant in the way it invites circling antagonists to stop just short of explicit anti-Semitism when analysing Baron’s motivations.)

The acting from the starry ensemble cannot be faulted. With such a busy story, the writers simply don’t have space to make fleshy characters of the reporters. That job falls on the actors, and each manages to produce something distinctive.

Michael Keaton cradles his hands to contemplative effect as the conflicted Robby Robinson. Rachel McAdams is empathetic as Sacha Pfeiffer. Mark Ruffalo gets the “big scene” – “They knew and they let it happen. It could have been you!” – and grasps it firmly in his capable fists. Each of these reporters is from a Catholic background and each faces hostility from his or her community.

Exposition is supposed to be the enemy of good film writing. One of the joys of the journo movie is that such reservations can be cast aside. We are following people who ask questions for a living and who are in the business of fashioning lucid stories from complex information. The film-makers are, thus, in a position to talk us slowly through the evasions and dishonesties that kept the priests from prosecution.

Along the way, Spotlight gets at the terrifying dominance of the Catholic Church in Bostonian affairs. However, as the story emerges, we learn that – as in Ireland – the citizens are no longer so compliant. Pro-church protesters ultimately prove to be less numerous than survivors seeking counselling.

As we might expect from the director of The Station Agent and The Visitor (not to mention last year's terrible Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler), the film-making is never flashy or obtrusive. Masanobu Takayanagi shoots in washed- out greys that rhyme with the murky subject matter. Howard Shore's score is insistent without ever becoming aggressive. The sense we have is of dedicated professionals getting the job done with the minimum of egotism or indulgence.

The same might be said of the Boston Globe's unstoppable reporters.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist