Spotlight’ tells an important story about people who tell important stories

Walk and talk: Keaton and Ruffalo get their story straight.

Four stars

Spotlight Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams. Directed by Tom McCarthy. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The Boston Globe reporters who in early 2002 broke the story of sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church spent several months gathering facts and building their story, and co-writer/director Tom McCarthy applies the same meticulous attention to detail to his account of their efforts in Spotlight.

The movie shows how the members of the Globe’s Spotlight investigative-reporting team followed up on every scrap of information, pulling at threads until they unraveled a scandal bigger than any of them could have ever imagined. Although his cast is full of talented, well-known actors, McCarthy mostly resists the temptation to give them a bunch of showy, awards-baiting scenes, instead methodically building characters from incidental, low-key moments, just as the reporters built their story from an accumulation of small details.

It starts with Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the taciturn new Globe editor whose outside perspective is just what’s needed to push an investigation into a beloved, sacrosanct Boston institution. The Spotlight team members, led by Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), are skeptical of their new boss at first, but when they start delving into the cases of local priests accused of molesting children, they discover a seemingly endless string of victims.

Although the movie focuses on the efforts of the reporters (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James), it never diminishes the struggles of the victims, most of whom are grateful that someone is finally sitting and listening to their stories. The actors manage to turn sitting and listening (along with asking questions and requesting documents) into riveting drama, especially as the characters slowly realize the extent of the abuse and its subsequent denial. Ruffalo gets the movie’s one potential grandstanding moment, as his character (reporter Michael Rezendes) explodes in frustration over the roadblocks put in the way of the story. But mostly the acting is powerful in how subdued it is, and Keaton stands out with his portrayal of a proud Boston native who has his preconceptions about his city shaken.

McCarthy, known for small-scale dramas like The Station Agent and The Visitor, directs like a good reporter, mostly letting the story tell itself. Like David Fincher’s Zodiac or Michael Mann’s The Insider (or even Alan J. Pakula’s classic All the President’s Men), Spotlight shows how the minutiae of reporting can have big, important effects—or small, mundane ones that turn out to be just as important.

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