"Spotlight" tells the true story of the Boston Globe reporters whose 2002 expose of nearly 90 pedophile priests in the Boston area—and the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had known about it and done nothing—set in motion a series of sexual molestation investigations around the world. It's an appalling story that easily could have been overdramatized or become overwrought in the wrong hands, but like a good piece of journalism, "Spotlight's" script (written by director Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer) lets the facts and the characters speak for themselves without comment, and makes an effort to show the drudgery of journalism as well as the drama. That means there are heart-wrenching scenes where reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams) interviews abuse victims, but there are also scenes of Pfeiffer and the other reporters on the Spotlight investigative team, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), poring through books of church records to find the names of priests who had been reassigned or put on sick leave in Boston over the years. It's far from thrilling work, but the reporters—and the audience—never lose sight of the fact that this potentially mind-numbing work is crucial to uncover the bigger picture.
And that bigger picture—abusive priests and the mechanisms by which the Catholic Church covered for them—is always the focus of the film, rather than the reporters. But "Spotlight" does let us see enough of the reporters' lives to humanize them and make clear the impact this difficult work has on them. The editor for the Spotlight team, Walter Robinson (played by Michael Keaton), is a Boston native and Catholic high school alum with personal ties to those working for the church, and Keaton captures the pressure and conflicts that Robinson feels. And Ruffalo is brilliant at assuming all the particular quirks and intense personality traits of the reporter, Rezendes. This is a journalist who's focused on his work at the expense of his relationship, though that's revealed in a scene that feels almost like an aside—yet another way in which "Spotlight" keeps the focus on the work to uncover abuse, not on the people doing the work.
That work, journalism, isn't exactly easy or well paid. Over the past couple of years, CareerCast has consistently ranked being a news reporter as one of the worst, if not the worst, job there is—right up there with being a lumberjack, taxi driver, or enlisted military personnel—thanks to the high stress, low pay, and shrinking job prospects. Every month there seems to be another story about a publication folding or a corporate newspaper owner announcing a round of buyouts or layoffs. But journalism can still, as "Spotlight" demonstrates, hold powerful people and institutions accountable and uncover egregious wrongdoings to effect change. In that sense, even though "Spotlight" doesn't valorize the reporters, laud the field of journalism, or exaggerate the drama of the trauma these reporters uncovered, it still makes a powerful statement about the value of journalism in an economic climate that constantly undervalues it.
The closing scene of "Spotlight" hammers that point home in a particularly heartbreaking way. The reporters' first story on child abuse in the Catholic Church has been published in the Sunday paper, with the phone number for a tip line, in case other abuse victims want to step forward. Rezendes and Robinson come into the office that Sunday, expecting there to be outraged phone calls from the Boston Globe's very Catholic readership, but instead they're stunned to find Carroll and Pfeiffer unable to keep up with the flood of phone calls on the tip line from other victims. Rezendes and Robinson look at each other, amazed, before moving into action, grabbing their notebooks and picking up phones to talk to the people who have called in to share their stories. The work seems never-ending and it's difficult, "Spotlight" says, but it's necessary work that can help those who have suffered injustice—and that opportunity to help those people is reward in itself.