The often-tedious work of investigative journalism is transformed into a gripping drama in the nimbly plotted Spotlight. Set in Boston in early 2001 through 2002, the movie follows four members of an investigative unit within The Boston Globe as they push through the knowing silence of deeply Catholic Boston in order to prove that power-brokers within the church and the community had direct knowledge of, and did nothing to stop, wide-spread, long-term sexual abuse of children by priests.

Witness how the hunt for information and the challenge faced by journalists who must necessarily be part of and separate from the community in which they work is a drama all unto itself in the Boston of Spotlight, as the perfect "small-town" city, one in which complicity and silence reign, including inside the Globe's newsroom. To their credit, the filmmakers mine this tension without any added complications—no love triangle, no lying sources—a remarkable, and refreshing, thing to see in a big-budget Hollywood film. Unlike other dramatizations of journalism environments, this one is surprisingly faithful to the experience, down to the dowdy outfits and cut-rate office furniture. Archival research, hard-hitting showdowns with reluctant sources, First Amendment court challenges—there's enough here to satisfy any lover of the Fourth Estate.

Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the self-described "player-coach" of the investigative unit, is both the Catholic good-old-boy and the muckraking journalist, an unenviable position for this particular investigation, which requires increasing ethical fortitude on his part. Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) fears alienating her über-Catholic grandmother. Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) struggles between sharing important information with his neighbors and waiting for publication. And Mike Rezendes' (Mark Ruffalo) single-minded focus on the job has evidently cost him his marriage (and a healthy diet) even before the team starts to look into the cover-up.

Robby, Sacha, Matt and Mike ask the right questions, show up at the right time, find the right documents and make the right calls. It is, to be sure, an idealized, and even a bit corny, vision of what journalism, both local and global, should be. (It is also a paean to the last glorious days of big-budget newspaper journalism.) Rather than a gritty realist look at the hard business of news, the film more closely resembles a heroic epic, in which a close-knit group of warriors discover the evil they had been hunting had been sitting right across the street all along.

Unlike the heroes of old, however, journalists are limited in their ability to slay villains. They can, as the film's title suggests, "shine a spotlight" on misdeeds. The film does a remarkable job of showing how journalists can and often do so, and rightly celebrates an often-maligned profession's role in society. But the more ambiguous and perhaps more important task—one the film relegates to a series of title cards—is measuring the uneven impact of such illumination.

SPOTLIGHT
Directed by Tom McCarthy
With Ruffalo, Keaton and McAdams
UA De Vargas
128 mins.
R