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The glare of the 'Spotlight' 

With Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Mark Ruffalo.

AIMING THEIR 'SPOTLIGHT': McAdams (from left), Keaton and Ruffalo, as Boston Globe reporters, take on the city's powerful Catholic hierarchy.
  • AIMING THEIR 'SPOTLIGHT': McAdams (from left), Keaton and Ruffalo, as Boston Globe reporters, take on the city's powerful Catholic hierarchy.

This is neither here nor there, but in March 2001 a young reporter named Kristen Lombardi published a front-page story in the Boston Phoenix titled "Cardinal Sin," about the institutional cover-up of sexual abuses committed by a Catholic priest named John Geoghan — a cover-up that went all the way to the top of the local hierarchy, the Archbishop of Boston. It was a big story for a journalist at the beginning of her career, and a big story for an alternative weekly, a free paper that lacked the ample staff and resources enjoyed by its daily competitors. Lombardi was suitably proud of her accomplishment. "I got really involved," she remembered recently in an interview with Boston Magazine. "It's really hard not to get personally involved in these kinds of stories."

About 10 months after Lombardi's piece, in 2002, after the Phoenix had run several more cover stories and editorials following up on the initial story, the Boston Globe — the most prestigious local daily — ran the first of a series of articles on the same topic. That series, reported by the paper's Spotlight unit, an investigative team that works independently from the Globe's newsroom and specializes in long-term projects, went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in 2003, and is now the subject of a new film, "Spotlight." And while Lombardi's prior reporting wasn't acknowledged in the Globe's pieces, it earns an offhand mention in the movie — it's early and quick, you could easily miss it. A defense attorney and crucial source on the priest abuses — hesitant to participate in the Spotlight crew's story — tells the Globe reporter played by Mark Ruffalo to "just read the story in the Phoenix." It's all there already, is his point. Ruffalo's response? "Nobody reads the Phoenix."

Consider me biased — I work for an understaffed alt-weekly — but a movie about the raucous Phoenix would have at the very least been more fun than "Spotlight," which combines the languid pacing of a post-war art film with the arid art-direction of "The Office." There's nothing particularly cinematic — nothing visually or structurally interesting — about the movie. Like a police procedural in which we already know the ending, it's a film about process, drudgery, the labor of investigation. This is what critics have appreciated about the early Oscar contender: It's dry and patient and reflective, recalling "All the President's Men" and, consequently, the golden age of newspapers. A vote for "Spotlight" is a vote for the undying value of old-school shoe-leather reportage.  

I'm susceptible to this message, and to the entertainment value of slow, maze-like procedurals — so I enjoyed the movie a lot. Like good detectives, the reporters work the phones and knock on doors and neglect their wives and eat dinners of cold pizza and loneliness. They want the truth, and they won't take no for an answer, lawyers and readers and editors be damned. Mark Ruffalo's interviewing mannerisms deserve a movie in themselves: His shoulders hunched, his notebook unobtrusive, his eye contact spare but movingly empathetic. "We spend most of our time stumbling around in the dark," the Globe's editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), says at one point, and it's a line you can imagine wide-eyed J-school kids sprinting to the nearest tattoo parlor to commemorate.

One of the film's best (only?) visual gags is a riff on the same subject: a shot of the Boston Globe headquarters flanked by a billboard for the then-ubiquitous AOL. As if to remind viewers that, sure, things seem rough for newspapers now, but hasn't the sky always been falling? After all, the Globe is still around, and how did AOL's plans for new-media world domination pan out?

The film reminds you of all this stuff — it's part of its project — but it reminds you of other things, too. It reminded me that work should be compelling and fulfilling. It reminded me that organizations that insist on moral superiority are usually immoral. The film reminded me, too, of the writer Janet Malcolm's most famous quote: "Every journalist who is not too stupid or full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible." Most of the time this seems true, and then sometimes it doesn't.

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