Tom McCarthy knows how to tell an engaging story. He proved it in “The Station Agent;” he proved it in “The Visitor;” and as writer-director of this film, he proves it again here. The story itself comes with its own inherent drama; it’s “based on actual events” of a small team of reporters uncovering a widespread network of priests molesting children over a period of 30 years – and the subsequent cover-up by the Catholic Church — in Boston. The articles they wrote won the Pulitzer Prize. But while news reporting may be interesting to do, it’s not necessarily exciting to watch. McCarthy makes it riveting, often infuriating, here. The crimes are not shown and, with few exceptions, neither are the criminals. In small snippets, victims tell their stories. More importantly, this is the story of a city, its people, its legal community, its media, and its church in a time of child molestation when: “Everyone knew something was going on – and no one did a thing.”
Now, it’s 2001 and the Boston Globe’s new editor wants his team of investigative reporters – called Spotlight — to look into the story, find what else is there. What they find is a conspiracy of silence, confusion, and fear. This movie is as much about the process of uncovering that conspiracy as it is about the problem itself. This is an ensemble piece and the camera keeps moving around, giving each character time onstage; distractions are minimal. Dialog is realistic, information-packed, helpful. It’s instructive without being preachy. The question is: do we need this much detail, this many characters? Its scope is impressive, but its depth is thin. The movie feels long, running out of energy before the story is ready for publication. And yet, McCarthy effectively combines the sensibility of an independent movie with the style and polish of a big-budget film. But this is not a movie that proposes solutions. It’s one that believes the necessary first step in finding them is to shine a bright light on the situation. A spotlight.