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'Spotlight' Is an Instant Classic

Extra, extra! Best newspaper flick since 'President's Men'!

Rating: R

Run time: 2 hours 8 minutes

Stars: Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery

Director: Tom McCarthy

As Spotlight opens, it's 2001 and the Globe is facing the first winds of change: A new editor (Liev Schreiber, channeling real-life Marty Baron) has just arrived from Miami, and layoff rumors are swirling as the Web starts to nudge print media aside. At first, the new guy is seen as a hatchet man. Before long, however, he's encouraging the paper's crack "Spotlight" team to look into a story about a priest accused of molesting kids.

That's like ordering a wolf pack to tuck into a truckload of strip steaks. Spotlight's chief (Michael Keaton) and his team quickly uncover that there's more to the story — a lot more. As the lead reporters, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams pound the pavement, make endless phone calls and flay their knuckles knocking on doors, many of which get slammed in their faces. They ingratiate themselves with some sources, intimidate others and slowly piece together a narrative that is positively horrifying: For years, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has been acutely aware of pedophile priests in its midst. Not only that, but it has deliberately shuttled them from one parish to another — a perverse shell game that invited the sexual predators to victimize hundreds of additional children.


Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films

Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo star in 'Spotlight'

Like the crusading journalists it honors, Spotlight forges ahead with a gripping story and doesn't stop until it gets it right.

All the President's Men for a new generation, the film follows a Boston Globe investigative-reporting team striving to expose the decades-long cover-up of pedophile priests within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston.

This year's pantheon of fictional movie heroes — your James Bonds, your Ethan Hunts, your Avengers — may as well slink off to their hideaways and cede the stage to the real-life titans of Spotlight, who use only pens and flip pads to topple a virtually impregnable superpower. In the hands of director Tom McCarthy (The Station AgentWin Win) and his impeccable ensemble, Spotlight reveals the power of a determined press — and implicitly warns against an emerging media landscape where watchdogs have become an endangered species.

In the media world of the early 2000s, however, knowing a story is true is not the same as being able to prove it in print. Aware they could get scooped by the competition any day, the Globe's editors nonetheless insist on ironclad corroboration of every fact, lining up multiple sources of unimpeachable veracity. In an age when a rumor can trigger a headline and tweets are considered primary source material, it's quaint to see grownups agonizing over trifles such as accuracy and accountability.

Anyone who has toiled for a time in a newsroom will recognize the refreshing authenticity of Spotlight. Don't come to this film anticipating Front Page-style badinage or Newsroom-style speechifying. The men and women of Spotlight know the only words that matter are those that go to press. They put their heads down, grill their sources and flesh out their story from its first skeletal leads to its front-page finale. Only once, in a scene made all the more explosive for the cool proceduralism that surrounds it, does Ruffalo's character, Mike Rezendes, lose his cool. Tellingly, it's fueled not by outrage at the evils the Spotlight team is uncovering but by frustration with his editor's demands for ever-more sources before the story can see the light of day.

To be sure, many reporters and editors today still embody the discipline and professionalism of the Spotlight team. But their numbers are dwindling, and they know they are plying their craft in a hurricane of societal indifference.

McCarthy and company have miraculously recreated an age that few thought would ever spark nostalgia. The Boston priest scandal will forever be a stain on that city's history, but its revelation was a triumph for Beantown. By the same token, Spotlight will inspire everyone who believes the truth is worth telling — and worth getting right the first time.

Bill Newcott is a writer, editor and movie critic for AARP Media.