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‘Spotlight’: Fine actors play fine journalists, and it all checks out

Ask anyone who has worked for a newspaper to name the best movie ever made about our profession, and it’s an upset when “All the President’s Men” isn’t the first title mentioned.

Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight” isn’t quite as memorable as Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 gold-standard classic with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Woodward and Bernstein, but it’s one of the best movies I’ve ever seen about the art and the science of newspaper reporting — and in particular that special breed of journalist who does important investigative work that involves a detective’s instinct, soul-sucking research, fierce determination, exhaustive hours and accepting the fact almost nobody is happy to hear from you when you call them and identify yourself.

The Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” crew consisted of an editor and a small handful of reporters who toiled in a subterranean office of the paper, working major stories for weeks or even months. When the “Spotlight” logo appeared in the Globe, there was a good chance someone was going to be indicted, or major changes would be enacted — or the greater Boston community would learn something they never knew about their beloved city.

“Spotlight” kicks off in 2001, as Liev Schreiber’s Marty Baron, formerly of the Miami Herald, arrived as the Globe’s new editor-in-chief.

More than 50 percent of the Globe’s readership was Catholic; Marty was Jewish. Nearly everyone in the newsroom was from Boston or had family ties to the city; Marty didn’t. He was ultimate outsider — not necessarily a disadvantage when it comes to marshaling objective reporting that could target previously untouchable institutions and figures, i.e., Cardinal Law and the Catholic Church.

Intrigued by a story about an abrasive, wild-card Armenian attorney named Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) who is representing numerous families alleging their children were abused by priests, and tales of the Church responding to these allegations by offering small cash settlements and transferring the offending priests to other parishes where they would have access to more children, Baron assigns the Spotlight team to investigate.

Is there a wide-ranging conspiracy to suppress the truth? Is the Church hierarchy actually complicit in allowing monsters in collars to molest children? And would the Globe actually have the, um, nerve to go after the most revered and powerful institution in the city?

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Michael Keaton (who starred as an ink-stained wretch in Ron Howard’s excellent “The Paper” in 1994) is Walter “Robby” Robinson, the beloved editor of the Spotlight team, which consists of Rachel McAdams’ Sacha Pfeiffer Mark Ruffalo’s Michael Rezendes and Brian d’Arcy James’ Matt Carroll.

What a fine team of actors portraying such a fine team of journalists. I believed every inch of all four performances, from Pfeiffer’s utter indifference to her wardrobe and her dogged efforts to obtain key interviews; to Rezendes’ obnoxiously aggressive methods; to Carroll’s feelings of conflict when family and journalistic ethics collide — to the terrible eating habits of one and all. Yep, they’re journalists all right.

John Slattery from “Mad Men” is the Globe’s deputy editor, one Ben Bradlee Jr., son of the Washington Post editor (played by Jason Robards in “All the President’s Men.”) The mere mention of the Bradlee name is enough to remind us of “All the President’s Men,” and “Spotlight” is a confident enough film to embrace the comparison.

As the Spotlight team digs deep, finding victims and encouraging them to talk, uncovering evidence indicating dozens of priests in the Boston area were accused of abuse, “Spotlight” becomes a procedural about print journalism. It’s not easy to make an emotionally involving film in which some of the most pivotal moments are about phone calls and making copies of documents and a source circling names on a document — but save for a few overly dry moments, “Spotlight” prevails. It’s one of the smartest and most involving movies of the years.

Keaton as Robby rocks every scene he’s in. Robby attended high school literally across the street from the Globe. He knows just about everyone in town, and just about everyone knows him. High-ranking officials with Catholic Charities, attorneys who worked for the church, even the Cardinal himself — they all trust Robby will do what’s best.

What they don’t understand is Robby is a journalist through and through, and for him what’s best is uncovering the truth, making sure that truth is extremely well sourced — and sharing that truth with the city.

[s3r star=3.5/4]

Open Road presents a film directed by Tom McCarthy and written by McCarthy and Josh Singer. Running time: 128 minutes. Rated R (for some language including sexual references). Opens Friday at local theaters.