“You sure you want to hear this (expletive)?” a survivor of sexual abuse asks a reporter.
That’s a question you’ll probably ask yourself when debating whether to watch “Spotlight,” a “based on actual events” drama about the Boston Globe staffers who uncovered an epidemic of pedophile priests and cover-ups orchestrated by the Catholic Church.
The subject already provokes rage and/or revulsion without having to endure a step-by-step procedural. But this stark and effective prestige picture makes the experience palatable by approaching the material with journalistic tenacity.
Taking a page from “All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight” introduces a mismatched handful of reporters and editors working at the Globe in 2001. Looking to streamline the publication, solemn new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) focuses on the paper’s Spotlight team. This investigative branch is led by the dogged Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), dedicated to spending months on a single story.
Baron suggests Robby and his team — composed of Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) — look into allegations of misconduct by clergy. Considering 53 percent of the Globe’s subscriber base is Catholic, the hesitant reporters realize they could face staunch resistance.
It isn’t until they meet the leader of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) that they understand the magnitude of the scandal. He explains these twisted relationships are “not just physical abuse, it’s spiritual abuse.” The suicide victims, alcoholics and drug addicts are abandoned by the same religion that promised salvation.
Filmmaker Tom McCarthy (“Win Win”) approaches the material much like incoming editor Baron: as a detached outsider. A more passionate investment might veer toward maudlin grandstanding; a more cinematic one could detract from the raw power of the topic. In certain respects, McCarthy, who co-wrote the screenplay with Josh Singer of “The Fifth Estate” (a similar saga that succumbed to both such pitfalls), navigates the only path into this story that’s watchable.
There’s no denying “Spotlight” courts credibility by presenting the dynamics of a daily newspaper with utmost attention to detail. But here’s the deal: A newsroom is inherently boring. This is a place typified by meetings, phone calls and workers staring at computer screens. The fluorescent lighting, muted colors and sea of blue button-down shirts make for drab visuals. It ain’t the Moulin Rouge.
The movie itself provides a reflection of this newsroom environment: honest, professional and just a bit square.
That may be why key performances are so uncharacteristic of the actors. As the pugnacious, fidgety, boots-on-the-ground reporter, Ruffalo can’t make a simple move without being outraged. He frantically attempts to inject energy into scenes that have little. Meanwhile, as the no-nonsense boss, Schreiber confuses being serious with being invisible.
It would be nice to see Ruffalo stop fighting the power for an instant or spot Schreiber laughing at a joke. The yin of overacting meets the yang of underacting.
Conversely, “Birdman” star Keaton strikes the right balance between authoritative and humanistic. Some of the picture’s best moments come when his Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist realizes the paper has been aware of these molestation accusations for years but always found ways to dismiss them, just like the rest of Boston.
As victim rights lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci in the film’s most memorable performance) tells the Globe, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse him.”
Regardless of the incendiary subject matter, the movie almost seems dated — the weak and familiar soundtrack by Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” trilogy) adds to the impression. But perhaps that’s all by design. “Spotlight” offers an earnest, old-fashioned moviegoing experience. And truth never goes out of style.
Jon Niccum is a filmmaker, freelance writer and author of “The Worst Gig: From Psycho Fans to Stage Riots, Famous Musicians Tell All.”
Rated R. Time: 2:08.