From left, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James in ‘Spotlight’
From left, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James in ‘Spotlight’

Fiction is a dying industry in film. Even this year’s Oscar favourites are led by truth-based adventure dramas or thrillers: The Revenant, Bridge of Spies and, UK-released this week, Spotlight.

It’s not that truth is stranger than fiction. (Or not always.) It’s that truth, or the illusion of truth, is becoming a stranger to fiction. Invented narratives are losing their cred, conviction and compulsiveness. A world wired to “how weird is that?” true tales no longer needs fantasy. (Except where action-fantasy franchises, through long saga service, have created their own bedrock of kitsch durability.) What goes viral on YouTube? True stories. What makes us go “No, really?” True stories.

In Spotlight a townful of Catholic priests — or nearly that — is fingered for child abuse. Truth is creepier than fiction, or became so 15 years ago, as the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team of investigative reporters, played here by Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James, hacked through a jungle of obstruction, from the bureaucratic to the plain criminal, to expose Catholic “fathers” in a city stacked with Catholic children born to Catholic parents.

“Hack.” It’s not always a rude word. Hacking through lies to find the truth: that’s a journalist’s job. As a press-exposé procedural, Spotlight has a verve often worthy of All the President’s Men. Tom McCarthy (The Station Agent) directs and co-writes as if the film were a hot-button documentary hijacked by stars, and in a way it is. Ruffalo and Keaton, both terrific, are like antic miniatures of Redford and Hoffman. Their mission: to chase the truth behind, first, a rash of civil lawsuits against a newly retired priest, second, a growing pattern of priests either put on “sick leave” or relocated to new dioceses by Cardinal Bernard Law, Boston’s archbishop.

The sleuthing wasn’t without hiccups. The year was 2001, and in September it became a time to bury bad news unrelated to 9/11. The abuse furores were smothered in dust from the World Trade Center until a later, more deliberate and heinous cover-up — the Church playing its last hand — sounded the siren the newsmen needed. Goodness triumphed. It actually does sometimes, even in a world without the wish-fulfilment aids of fiction.

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article