Movie review: Shining a powerful 'Spotlight' on clergy sex abuse

Church spires jut from the Boston neighborhoods in Spotlight, one of the great movies about journalism, and one of the great movies of our time, period.

The stained glass and weathered stone of these sanctuaries - many of them part of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston - often front onto parks and playgrounds full of children.

Inside some of those same churches, for decades, priests preyed on children, molesting them, abusing them, and getting away with it, despite the complaints of family members, despite the knowledge of the archdiocese, the cardinals, the bishops.

In a series of stories that began in January 2002, the Boston Globe's investigative unit, dubbed Spotlight, exposed scores of pedophile clergymen - and the systemic coverup by an institution whose wealth and power reached into every corner of the city.

With dogged realism - and with a screenplay as clear and compelling as it is complex - Spotlight goes back to the early 2000s and tracks how the publication of this monumental series came to be. Directed by Tom McCarthy from a screenplay by McCarthy and Josh Singer, Spotlight is the best kind of procedural drama, unfolding as facts are uncovered, leads pursued, as witnesses and victims are interviewed (often with great reluctance), as lawyers, politicians, and public relations men try to negotiate, manipulate, manage the truth.

Spotlight stars Michael Keaton (in his first role since Birdman) as Walter "Robby" Robinson, the editor in charge of the Spotlight investigations. Mark Ruffalo is Michael Rezendes, one of the team's more palpably relentless reporters. Rachel McAdams plays Sacha Pfeiffer, going door to door with her notebook and her queries. Brian d'Arcy James is Matt Carroll, the veteran on the team. The four work from an office away from the Globe newsroom, and away from the paper's newly appointed top editor, Marty Baron (a terrific Liev Schreiber). It is Baron, just relocated from Miami, who pushes them on.

It's impossible not to draw comparisons between Spotlight, with its ace ensemble cast and dead-on, detailed depiction of newsroom culture, and All the President's Men, Alan J. Pakula's account of the Washington Post's Watergate revelations and those Pulitzer-winning journos Redford and Hoffman - oops, Woodward and Bernstein. Both films find their intrepid (and sometimes scruffy) heroes running up against people of power, guilty of corruption, of abuse. Both films celebrate the essential role a free press plays in our society. Spotlight even has its own Ben Bradlee (Ben Bradlee Jr., a Globe editor played by Mad Men's John Slattery) and its own sort of Deep Throat - a voice on the phone guiding the reporters on. (See whether you can guess who. Clue: Think of McCarthy's 2007 film The Visitor.)

McCarthy is an actor as well as director, and he has cast Spotlight with colleagues who know how to work off one another, brilliantly. (He may also be paying penance: In season five of David Simon's HBO series The Wire, McCarthy played the Baltimore Sun's Scott Templeton, a reporter whose ambition far surpassed his ethics. The guy made up stories, made up sources, made up "facts.")

In Spotlight, McCarthy is working on a bigger scale, with way more plot and characters than in any of his indies - The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win/Win. (It's best to just completely ignore his 2014 Adam Sandler directing job, The Cobbler.) McCarthy's ability to tie all the strands together and not lose his audience while doing so is close to astounding.

Spotlight resonates on a deep emotional level, too. When McAdams' Pfeiffer walks and talks with one of the victims, now an awkward, anguished adult (and played, heartbreakingly, by Michael Cyril Creighton), you're going to want to cry. A scene with Pfeiffer and her churchgoing grandmom (Eileen Padua), too, hits hard in its piercing detail: "Nana" is reading the just-delivered edition of the Globe with the front page story, and has to stop and ask her granddaughter, the author of the expose, for a drink of water. Gulp.

Spotlight

is powerful stuff. But it's also inspiring stuff, the stuff of Hollywood all the way back to Frank Capra and before: a story of scrappy underdogs, determined to get to the truth, and toppling the mighty in the process.

srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629

@Steven_Rea


Spotlight **** (Out of 4 stars)

Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer. Directed by Tom McCarthy. With Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d'Arcy James, Mark Ruffalo. Distributed by Open Road Films.

Running time: 2 hours, 8 mins.

Parent's guide: R (profanity, adult themes).

Playing at: Ritz East (expanding to area theaters next Friday).