Another Sunday matinee. Another feel-good experience at the movies.
Two weeks ago, it was “The Martian.”
This time it was “Spotlight,” a riveting film about a dogged team of journalists in Boston who start out investigating allegations that a single disgraced priest molested more than 80 boys and wind up exposing proof of a cover-up of widespread abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.
Oh, sure. You’d expect a journalist to like a movie about other journalists.
Well, I’d like to think that as a journalist, I bring a more nuanced view to a movie like this one. That being the case, I’m happy to say the director, screenwriters and actors all got it right.
“Spotlight” is a well-crafted, well-acted film that pulls back the curtain on The Boston Globe’s investigation of the Catholic Church — quite possibly the most powerful institution in a city whose Catholic population is matched only by New York and Pittsburgh at 36 percent.
The movie accurately depicts the methods and challenges of reporting a sensitive, complicated story over a period of months. Checking the morgue (the newspaper library) for previous stories to get started. Meeting with both cooperative and reluctant sources and winning their trust. Locating experts and mining their insights. Meticulously recording and tracking known facts. Gaining access to key documents that are sealed under court order. Connecting all the dots to see a bigger, more explosive story emerge.
The main characters — an editor and three reporters who make up The Globe’s investigative “Spotlight” team — are presented as caring, committed, conscientious and even courageous, while also portrayed as ordinary and imperfect. They’re not over-the-top superheroes, just dogged, resourceful professionals dedicated to telling ugly truths about a church that allowed dozens of priests to abuse vulnerable children and then sought to cover up their unconscionable, criminal behavior.
Michael Keaton — who was so, so good in “Birdman” — is again superb in his role as Spotlight editor Walter Robinson. Others in an outstanding cast include Marc Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams (as reporters Michael Rezendes and Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schrieber (as Globe Editor Marty Baron) and Stanley Tucci (as attorney Mitchell Garabedian).
Two things are worth keeping in mind as you watch this film — and, by all means, you should go see it.
One: The Globe managed to keep its focus on this story in 2001 and 2002 even after the 9/11 terror attacks dominated the news for months on end. It didn’t rush a half-baked story into print. It showed patience and perspective in giving the “Spotlight” team the time it needed to discover and deliver the bigger, more impactful story. Deservedly, the Globe won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its work.
Two: Old school print journalism is on full display here. Reporters take notes by hand. They literally thumb through directories of Catholic churches and priests. They knock on doors to get interviews. They make photocopies of court documents. Blockbuster stories appear in the morning paper. Readers respond by calling the newsroom.
It’s a far cry from today’s run-and-gun digital age, where vast amounts of data can be downloaded, stored and manipulated on spreadsheets; where morgues have given way to Google; where court documents can be accessed online; where stories appear online and then in print.
That’s not to say that important, investigative journalism has fallen by the wayside. It hasn’t. I know this because I see the great work of my colleagues week in and week out, holding public officials and government agencies accountable, and shining a light — a spotlight, if you will — on issues like domestic abuse, race and diversity, housing and gentrification.
“The Martian” was a welcome escape from reality. “Spotlight” makes you ask, who needs a fictional narrative when the drama of a real life detective story is compelling enough in its own right?
Poster: Open Road Films
Photograph: Kerry Wells, Open Road Films