REVIEW: ‘Spotlight’ speaks volumes on grief, both private and professional

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I’ve never thought of it this way before, but it’s true: I’m a journalist, so I’m biased.

That’s the caveat I offer you before I set in to rave about director Thomas McCarthy’s journo-centric Boston drama “Spotlight.”

This photo provided by Open Road Films shows, Rachel McAdams, from left, as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, Michael Keaton as Walter "Robby" Robinson and John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., in a scene from the film, "Spotlight." (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films via AP)
This photo provided by Open Road Films shows, Rachel McAdams, from left, as Sacha Pfeiffer, Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes, Brian d’Arcy James as Matt Carroll, Michael Keaton as Walter “Robby” Robinson and John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr., in a scene from the film, “Spotlight.” (Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films via AP)

McCarthy’s name isn’t one you’d recognize among directors. It may not even ring a bell unless you watched HBO’s “The Wire,” where his reporter character perpetrated a great fictional tragedy for the First Amendment and Fourth Estate in the show’s final season.

Behind the camera, though, he has crafted a retelling of one of journalism’s great triumphs — a perfectly paced procedural that also serves as a powerful rumination on failure and how we all process grief.

Here’s what you need to know on background: The Boston Globe published a series on the Catholic Church protecting abusive priests who targeted poor, vulnerable kids, and then recycling those clergy through different parishes.

What “Spotlight” does is present the story of the storytellers, from the intra-office politics of taking on one of the community’s most-venerated institutions to the personal crisis of the many semi-lapsed Catholics whose bylines adorned the Pulitzer-winning stories.

How that story is told is what elevates “Spotlight” into the rarefied air of being mentioned in the same breath as “All The King’s Men” and “Zodiac.” Take the opening scene: In less than two minutes, a priest goes from a police precinct holding room to being whisked away by church officials, a veteran cop left to respond “What arraignment?” when his young colleague naively wonders how they’ll keep the press away.

Viewers watch reporters move up and down stairwells, reminding us that, not so long ago, a major paper needed more than one whole floor of a big office building to house all the reporters, copy editors, archivists and other staffers, and offices upon offices of physical files, microfilm and the like — evidence, stories, lives.

“Spotlight” is as much a story about the people — the press, the priests, the police — as it is about the buildings they work in: Big, hulking institutions, all of which feel much smaller in the size of their influence today. At one point, a church-allied lawyer shrugs of a suggestion from Globe editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) that he’s not on the right side of history.

“This is the church you’re talking about,” he hubristically replies.

Each member of the ensemble nails their assignment. Liev Schrieber’s portrayal of top editor Marty Baron is quiet bordering on aloof, but his pressure on the newsroom leads the Globe’s Spotlight team of crack reporters to tackle a story almost doomed to otherwise languish in obscurity otherwise. Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo and Brian d’Arcy James round out the reporting team that constantly struggles with their own upbringing in the church, as well as their desire to get the news out as quickly as they responsibly can.

As triumphantly as the tale of these journalists could be treated, it is tempered with the realization that so many accusations and clues went unnoticed for years on end, to the point where an attorney holding onto big secrets (played by Billy Crudup) rightfully admonishes the Globe for not exposing them sooner.

“It’s like everyone already knows the story,” McAdams’ character notes at one point, a familiar take for most reporters seeking to show what’s been done but not said.

Thankfully for the Spotlighters, there’s Stanley Tucci playing the role of the harried lawyer for the victims’ families. Not only is Tucci tonally perfect in being confrontational with the reporters, but his role injects a much-needed piece of courtroom intrigue that serves to show the ferociousness with which scribes such as Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes run down the facts.

Simply put, the devil is almost certainly in the dedication to conveying the details of “Spotlight” in a way that remains enthralling while going beyond a simple procedural narrative. From the minute the team gets the assignment, things start moving at breakneck speeds: They know all the players, most of the history and a good deal of the context already. It’s something to witness and awe, and it’s something that’s just not the reality of many newsrooms these days.

But see it and judge for yourself. After all, I’m biased.

“Spotlight” is rated R for language and sexual themes. Two hours and eight minutes. Four and a half stars out of five.

ALSO IN THEATERS

  • Chilean miner drama “The 33” joins “Love the Coopers” and “My All American” as the big releases at the nearest multiplex.
  • “Peace Officer,” a documentary on the growing militarization of police, opens Friday at the Mayan Theatre.
  • Fans of “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” buoyed by word of a Kickstarter to bring new episodes of the canceled B-movie riffing series, have a chance to meet MST3K stars Trace Beaulieu and Frank Conniff at “The Mads Are Back,” 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the Alamo Drafthouse.

THIS WEEKEND AT THE DENVER FILM FESTIVAL

  • The 2015 John Cassavetes Award for this year’s Denver Film Festival goes to John Turturro, who stars in festival flick “Mia Madre.” The film shows at 7 p.m. Thursday at the Sie FilmCenter, and a Q&A panel with Turturro kicks off at 10 p.m.
  • Tickets are still available for the red carpet matinee screening of Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” starring Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, at 2:30 p.m. Saturday at the Ellie Caulkins Opera House.

— For the latest information on sold-out screenings and ticket prices, visit www.denverfilm.org.