In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber), an out-of-town Jew, took over editorship of the Boston Globe and spurred the paper’s Spotlight investigative team into following up on scattered stories about child-abusing priests to uncover the Catholic Church’s longstanding policy of covering up scandals, paying off victims and coddling paedophiles. As a long, depressing list of stats in the end credits of this account of the investigation show the Boston case was simply an instance of what turned out to be a worldwide church policy that has seriously affected the Vatican’s standing and power.
Directed by Tom McCarthy and scripted by McCarthy and Josh Singer, this is very much in the mould of All the President’s Men – Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr (John Slattery) was the son of the veteran Jason Robards played in the earlier film – with the odd, you-wouldn’t-write-it-this-way-if-it-weren’t-true detail that this one time the new editor isn’t more interested in downsizing, cost-cutting and crass commercialism than tackling an important, diffiuclt, hard-to-sell story and backs up his team all the way, so that editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and researcher Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) aren’t rogue investigators like Woodward and Bernstein but fully-supported plodders. This is slightly inconvenient for the movie since it means there’s not much menace – even Carroll’s discovery that his anonymous suburban neighbourhood has a shelter for kiddy-fiddling priests a block away isn’t oversold as melodrama – and the vaunted power and threat of the church isn’t really brought to bear. We keep hearing how Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) squashed previous investigations, but – perhaps through tact – there’s more legal obfuscation than conspiracy terror here. For the purposes of cinema, it’s a sad fact that real-life church scandals are inconveniently short of evil albino hit-men priests.
The investigation involves liaising with a couple of contrasting lawyers – smooth Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup) and spiky Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) – who have reasons to be prickly in that they’ve both tried to go to the press before and been sidelined, and Sacha hitting the streets to talk with many grown-up, damaged victims and – in one startling, too-short scene – a fussily unguilty mad priest. The biggest upset, interestingly, is that 9/11 happens just as this story is coming together and all the news media are (justifiably) sent to cover that, leaving this investigation to simmer just as it’s coming together. The film works hard on making 2001 a period – the floppy discs and VDU monitors, talk of ‘the world-wide web’, the first encroachments of online against print – and there’s an understated suggestion that this might be the last time a story like this will break big because of the professional, responsible, regulated work of an investigative news team rather than unreliable cowboys like Anonymous or Wikileaks. These people are angry about the injustice they uncover – Ruffalo seethes as if he’s about to Hulk-out, which is likely to haunt his serious career forever – but dispassionate when it comes to the stuff most heroic reporter movies leave out, like turning up early at court to get the unsealed documents and cross-checking stacks of annual church directories to see which priests have been rotated too often or are listed as euphemistically off sick.