Yesterday's film: Thomas McCarthy's Spotlight.
Very much in the vein of Alan Pakula's 1974 political thriller All The President's Men, Spotlight tells the essentially-true story of the Boston Globe's early 2000s exposé of the Catholic Church's systematic and widespread sexual abuse of children. The term Spotlight refers to the five-person investigative team from the Globe that researched and broke the story (which along with subsequent coverage earned the paper a Pulitzer Prize in 2003).
Thomas McCarthy is unfamiliar to me, but I found I was an instant fan. I see he has worked primarily as an actor in both film and television, and has a dozen directing credits on his resume. However he got his experience I cheered every one of his choices here, especially what he chose NOT to do. The drama is baked into the bones of the story itself, and no resort to film cliche or easy tension-ratcheting gimmickry were used--this must be hard to resist as this kind of restraint is very rare.
The paper received a tip-off in 2001 that priests were sexually molesting children. The story had been around before and had even gotten some minimal coverage. But a new editor-in-chief at the Globe, Marty Baron, felt there was more to the story than the paper was pursuing and he persuaded the Spotlight team to take a look. As it turned out, Spotlight's investigation was like turning over a log to find a whole ecosystem of rot and depravity throughout the church. The abuse was bad enough, of course, but the real story was the church's knowledge of the abuse and its complicity and cover-up. A number of private investigators and lawyers had been working for years on bits and pieces of the scandal, but those smaller efforts had been successfully fended off by the church through payouts and intimidation and the public labeling of accusers as quacks and liars.
But Boston is a very Catholic place, and the church is deeply entwined in the very fabric of Boston life. This meant that the sources needed to uncover the story and even the staff of the paper itself were at times reluctant to cooperate. It was only when the team amassed such a weight of evidence that it could not be ignored that the dominoes fell. (We see he chain of emotions from "How dare you say these things about the beloved church?!" to "Is it as bad as all that?" to "Oh god, what have we done / allowed to happen?" over and over again.)
Spotlight is what The DaVinci Code dreamed of being. Spotlight is everything that film is not, measured and methodical and grinding. The investigation has the ups and downs one would expect--the 9/11 attacks occur right in the middle of the investigation--but these are not dangled in front of us as The! Next! End! Of! The! World! They are things that must be ground through and overcome as the work plods on. McCarthy manages to keep this plodding from seeming at all, well, plodding, and I found I was at the edge of my seat for the whole two hours.
I especially love that Marty Baron, who would have been easy to portray as the outsider come to upset the order of things, was greeted with some natural skepticism but quickly proves his mettle; I love that Rachel McAdams is not sexualized and there are no muddling romantic subplots among the close-working reporters. Everyone is portrayed as incredibly hard working and good (but not infallible) at their jobs.
And of course Spotlight has the considerable advantage of being true in all its salient parts. The evil in the story is the actual, demonstrated evil of the organized church and of some of the men of that church. Marty Baron was savvy enough to recognize that the real story is not the individual abusers or even the victims but the institution itself. When it was discovered that Archbishop Bernard Law had known of the abuse and had helped engineer the cover-up, the Spotlight team was eager to post the story immediately--it was seemingly exactly what they had been looking for. But Baron alone insisted that the Spotlight team keep digging because the story was bigger than Law. (The team risked being scooped by another paper by these delays, but the risk got them a much bigger story.)
Bernard Law, of course, was simply moved to another jurisdiction. This time to a plum post within the Vatican itself. That says about everything we need to know.
This hasn't been a big movie year for me, but now at year's end this film rises to the top. Very highly recommended.