There’s a confessional booth’s worth of bad news in Spotlight, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy’s cauterizing drama about the Boston Globe’s 2002 exposé on priestly pedophilia. The good news, for McCarthy and viewers, is that it all played out in Boston–the Athens of America but also a city that provides implausible deniability: Everyone in power knew what everybody did. And what other people did about it. And whether someone did anything at all.
It’s this sense of community betrayal and misdirected allegiances–it was the Catholic Church, after all–that makes Spotlight an emotional tour de force. “If it takes a village to raise a child,” grumbles a lawyer (Stanley Tucci) who is handling 80-odd abuse cases, “it takes a village to abuse one.” No one is innocent who doesn’t act. Not even the avenging angels of the fourth estate.
McCarthy lets the facts uncovered by the paper’s Spotlight team of investigative reporters–Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Matty Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)–speak for themselves. There are few moments of confrontation, unless it’s between a long-unheeded victim of the church and the journalists who have more or less stumbled on a story that’s been festering for years. Deftly avoiding melodrama, McCarthy fills Spotlight with process, showing how fragments of information rise, converge and ultimately metastasize into the story of a decades-long cover-up. There’s a consistent tension between faith and the facts–this is Boston, and everyone’s befogged, both by the unspeakable nature of the crimes and the identities of the perpetrators.
This appears in the November 16, 2015 issue of TIME.