Spotlight is front-page news, sheds light on ‘true heroes’ who exposed priest abuse

Hold the presses. After a front-loaded opening weekend of world premieres, the Toronto International Film Festival officially confirmed what Venice and Telluride previously reported: that Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight will be a major awards player this Oscar season.

Based on the Boston Globe’s 2002 Pulitzer Prize-winning expose about the Catholic Church’s decades-long cover-up of pedophile priests in the heavily Irish-Catholic city, Spotlight is a well-argued clarion call for serious journalism as an essential check on our institutions of power. Like All the President’s Men and The Verdict, two films which it evokes, it’s also a wondrously entertaining thriller. 

Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, and Brian D’Arcy James star as the paper’s “Spotlight” team of reporters who doggedly pieced together the case that showed how an entire community had turned a blind eye while serial-abusers in the clergy molested vulnerable children within their flocks. John Slattery plays a well-connected top editor, and Liev Schreiber is the standoffish new boss — a Jew from Miami who doesn’t follow baseball — who prods his staff to dig deeper into a story that had conveniently been given short shrift at the paper over the years. 

It’s the very definition of an ensemble piece, mirroring the teamwork and culture that defined the Globe’s staff. After the screening, McCarthy introduced the actual reporters and editors on the stage with the actors, and the two camps showered each other with praise. “[Reporting] really is stumbling in the dark — one step forward, some days two steps forward, one step back — but this film really captures what we did, how we did it, how difficult it was to do,” said Walter Robinson, the senior member of the “Spotlight” team, played by Keaton. 

McCarthy and co-writer Josh Singer spent months with the journalists to get the story correct, and the actors shadowed their “characters” on the job to get the little things right. “I always knew Mark Ruffalo was a great actor; I didn’t know that he was a great reporter,” said Michael Rezendes. “The guy learned more about me than I ever wanted to tell him.” 

Ruffalo mastered Rezendes’ cough-like laugh, an imitation that thrilled the other reporters to no end. McAdams admitted to purposely dropping behind Sacha Pfeiffer on their walks together, just to get a better take on her gait. Even Schreiber nailed boss Marty Baron, though his assignment may have been hardest of all. “He had an impossibly difficult subject,” deadpanned Baron. “How do you portray someone who does not emote? Somehow he did that.”

Image Credit: Melissa Renwick/Toronto Star via Getty Images

Even during the production, the Globe team was there, providing their invaluable expertise on matters both big and small. “The reporters read just about very draft, constantly making [notes — even] after we locked the picture,” said McCarthy. “I was like, ‘Alright, it’s done, stop with the notes.’” 

But he and his filmmaking team were clearly thrilled by the film’s rapturous reception and the opportunity to shine a light on the “true heroes,” as McCarthy called them. “You lifted the hood off of the machine and it wasn’t always pretty,” said Ruffalo. “Journalism is … a big part of what democracy is, and it has to be vibrant and it has to courageous and it has to be as independent as these people were in order for the world to remain decent.” 

“I think maybe some of us even underestimate the impact that this [story] had … not only in Boston, but globally,” said McCarthy. “Although the Catholic Church has a new pope who seems to be saying a lot of the right things, there’s a lot of work to be done.”

Spotlight opens in theaters on Nov. 6, and it’s shaping up to be a formidable Oscar player, checking many of the boxes that voters (and critics) typically appreciate: a complex and ambitious true story that has heft, a story that lionizes writers, and an ensemble cast of A-listers. No movie since The Godfather: Part II has produced three acting nominations in the same category, but Spotlight has at least four actors worthy of consideration for Best Supporting Actor, depending on how they decide to slot them. 

In the film, the “Spotlight” team is eager to go to print once they have their first devastating news scoop, but Robinson and Baron decides to hold it until they have everything — every last detail all the way to the top of the power structure. And that’s kind of where Spotlight might feel right now on Sept. 15, weeks before its release and months before Oscar nominations are announced. They have a winner on their hands, and people are already talking, even those who haven’t seen it. “Last Thursday I got a telephone call from a woman in California trying to interest me in doing a story about a cult,” said Robinson. “And finally I said, ‘Well, why are you calling me in Boston? She said, ‘Well, I saw the trailer for Spotlight today and I thought you’d be the best person to investigate.”