In early 2001, Miami Herald transplant Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over as editor in chief at the Boston Globe, the biggest daily newspaper in the closely knit, deeply Catholic city. Lamented as an outsider who will never grasp the populous of Boston, Baron makes a pointed effort to acquaint himself with his surroundings and deep-dive into the structural organization of the paper. Baron meets with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the head of "Spotlight," the paper's select investigative team, who pride themselves on long investigations and cathartic exposé pieces, to discuss their role moving forward. Baron's interest is piqued by a recent (albeit extremely brief) mention in the Globe of a Catholic priest charged with sex crimes against children in the Boston area. Mindful of the paper's large Catholic readership, Robby is hesitant to dig up more dirt on the priest. Baron presses him to think larger than just the single offense, and instructs the Spotlight team to delve into the Church as a possible systemic source of sexual transgressions in and around Boston.
Robinson coordinates with his managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and his stable of journalists; Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), to begin their exhaustive investigation. They start by combing through old issues of the Globe for similar cases, reaching out to known victims and their counsel, and recruiting the help of Mitchell Garabedian (a fantastic Stanley Tucci), a lawyer absorbed in uncovering the sinister cover-ups by area clergy leaders of child abuse in the Church. As the journalists get deeper into their research, the horrific findings begin to mount -- they learn of more than 70 priests known to have committed child sexual abuse in and around Boston over the past few decades, with all signs pointing to the Archbishop of Boston, Cardinal Bernard Francis Law (Len Cariou), as a willful actor in the cover-up and obscuring of truth.
Director Tom McCarthy co-wrote Spotlight with Josh Singer, and the duo have catapulted themselves into the lead for Best Picture. Spotlight is a taut, engrossing journalist procedural, the likes of which may not have been seen since All the President's Men in 1976. Briskly paced and never breaking its stare with the evil it confronts, Spotlight is a wire-to-wire home run. It seems almost foreign now in 2015 to recall the time when society leaned so heavily on the work of print journalists, but McCarthy has created a movie that can harness that importance into a captivating picture.
Spotlight exists in that miniature window of time after the Internet had become common but before it had become indispensable, which made hard journalistic instinct a vital mechanism to uncover systemic misdeeds and indignities. With newsrooms across the country slashing budgets and laying off reporters, Spotlight is a timely reminder about the societal importance of dogged journalism. The real-life efforts of the Spotlight reporters could have been all for naught had the Globe not given them more than a year to compile their evidence and track down the truth. Such leniency within newspapers now is rare, if not completely antiquated. McCarthy reminds us why we cannot let newspapers disappear -- not through theatrical newsroom speeches, but by showing the legwork that is needed to put an exposé like this together in an effort to affect real impact.
Keaton builds on his career revitalization with a measured performance as the conflicted Catholic newsman Robinson. Ruffalo will not be alone come awards season for Spotlight, but his authenticity and purpose as Rezendes should garner him a second consecutive nom for Best Supporting Actor after last years' Foxcatcher. And fresh off the less-than-stellar second season of True Detective, McAdams reminds audiences that she can hold her own with the best in Hollywood. It's a sight to behold when an ensemble cast can become even greater than the sum of its top-notch parts.
Spotlight is an important film for the ugliness that its subjects uncovered. Before the credits roll, there is a list shown of every major city that has been involved in a child-abuse scandal in regards to the Catholic Church. It's staggering in its length, and speaks to the weight of the efforts of Baron, Bradlee, Robinson, Rezendes, Pfeiffer and Carroll in Boston.