With a new owner at the Boston Globe, a review of the newspaper's effectiveness and - importantly - cost-effectiveness is making all the employees nervous. The incoming publisher, Marty Baron, is evaluating each deprtment and calls in the 'Spotlight' team from within the news-department to find what they're working on. Their problem is that in an ever more fast moving culture, those investigators often spend months carefully building exposes and articles rather than snappy headlines. Baron appreciates their professionalism but needs to see results.
An old lead about child abuse is scrutinised and suggested as ideal for the dogged team. But what starts as a gentle but firm pull on a loose thread soon starts to see many of the official lines from the local archdiosese start to unravel. Far from being an isolated case, several more accusations rise up. Even worse there's a pattern of other priests receiving no more punishment than being moved to another area where that abuse continues. But to prove their story and the intent of hiding the facts from the public, the Spotlight team are going to have call on every resource, reluctant witnesses and a legal system that appears to have put crucial evidence beyond their reach...
In a culture of conspiracy theories, rumour and innuendo, it's sometimes difficult to find the truth. But when the real scandals occur they now tend to come in two parts: the original accusations of reprehensible actions against individuals and/or public interest and - just as appallingly - the cover-up that can follow. (One only has to look at the most current scandal playing out in Flint, Michigan to see that.) It's often the double-whammy of bad actions and contempt for accountability, the double insult to those hurt by such events, that creates such spectacular downfalls.
Spotlight is largely about the latter, taking place in 2001/2002 and detailing the Boston Globe's infamous investigation into molestation by the Roman Catholic church. It originally exposed one, then several events in the city and then - subsequently - turned into a stunningly indictment of the whole institution on a national and international scale.
This isn't quite an All the President's Men for the 21st Century, but it's not far off. Even knowing the result - the headlines causing a tidal wave of recriminations - it's a tale of solid school of old-school journalism in an industry that sadly isn't always at the top of its game as it puts ratings and profit before facts.
The strong ensemble cast gives their all. Michael Keaton leads them as Walter 'Robby' Robinson with able-support from the likes of a now Oscar-nominated Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes and his fellow scribes Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). Liev Shreiber as Marty Baron is used sparingly but side-steps a role that could have been 'uncaring boss' if this was a fictional story, encouraging the Spotlight team to get the story RIGHT rather than fast. These are proper and worthy journalists working in the early 2000s casting side-glances at emerging technology but getting on with their work because they believe in it. One can almost taste the cold coffee, extinguished cigarettes and whoosh of deadline pressure.
Boston itself plays a part, almost a character unto itself, the film capturing the different communities that make up the city and the way that the abuse was able to take hold amongst the most vulnerable.
In what could easily have been merely an angry scattershot tirade against religion as a whole, actual faith is actually treated with respect and nuance. Boston was - and remains - a deeply religious US city where community is everything. The Spotlight team were largely Boston born and bred, with religious upbringings and an innate respect for the church and with very conflicting feelings about their own investigation. The film details not only their journalistic journey but their dissillusionment about the reality of paedophile preists using their positions to prey on the poor and troubled in their communities... and then the hard truth of seeing Spotlight's efforts being blocked at every turn by the Church itself, sometimes gently sometimes bluntly - using not only the technical word of law, but its clear and present power and influence in the community to dissuade the team. Spotlight, the film, reminds us that the investigation's targets were firslty criminals and secondly the institution that protected them rather than wholesale damning of people of genuine faith.
The film is quiet, resolved and determined - in a way that few films seem to have patience for nowadays. Journalists huddle and discuss rather than shoot out witty barbs, they compare notes rather than blog, do research rather than retweet, pour through documents rather than Google. Yes, the familiar camera-friendly faces have moments of human levity amid the darker accusations, but it's a film that nods approvingly at the hard work, never asking its audience to punch the air in shorthand triumph. In the end the victory is in the exposing of the truth against the odds, rather than seeing the punishment it deserved. Yes, the presses role and the first edition gets held up for satisfaction of a job well done, but there's no tickertape parade for the final act. The truth is out. The molestations were uncovered, the thousands of people implicated were exposed, but the bittersweet truth is that Bernard Law, the Archbishop of Boston, only stepped down from his position under further pressure, eventually saying that he apologised and begged forgiveness from 'all those who have suffered from my shortcomings and mistakes'.
His punishment? Pope John Paul II gave him a position in Rome, where Law continues to serve the church.