There are more good things than bad about Spotlight - in fact, there are very few bad things about it at all - but I frankly think the best thing about it is the way it has redeemed the career of writer-director Tom McCarthy. You will maybe recall, how McCarthy started making movies with 2003's The Station Agent, still his very best movie, and that he made a new movie like clockwork every four years after that - 2007's excellent The Visitor, 2011's lovely Win Win. Ah, but there came an aberration, in two senses: it took only three years for McCarthy's fourth film to premiere at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival, and it was The Cobbler, an all-encompassing disaster of bad taste, irrational storytelling, and shoddy acting. Now, thankfully, we get to wipe it right of the books: four movies, every four years, all of 'em good.

Spotlight, co-written with Josh Singer, is the outlier among the narratives McCarthy has tackled, for two reasons. One of these is that it's based on a true story with socio-political overtones: it retells the case of how the "Spotlight" team at The Boston Globe, a crew of investigative journalists noted for the length of their investigations and the depth of their research, blew open the conspiracy by the Boston archdiocese to cover up widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests. The other inevitably derived from the first, is that it's an ensemble piece, rather than a little intimate character drama about just one or two interesting people. By all means, the members of "Spotlight" are probably interesting, but Spotlight doesn't care about them on that level. Insofar as this is a character drama at all, it's only because the majority of the characters are one or another flavor of lapsed Catholic and native Bostonians, and the horror of the story is presented first in terms how betrayed and disgusted it leaves them.

This is also the reason that Spotlight turns out to be better than it sounds, assuming it doesn't sound too good. Myself, I hear the logline, and my ears are filled with the dull roaring noise of Oscarbait. It's nothing like - fine, it's slightly like that. It's no accident that this journalistic procedural is about a nationally significant social issue instead of some tiny but outrageous piece of local corruption over zoning laws, though most of the machinery of the story would work the same either way. Regardless, the film's great achievement is not that it replicates the process by which crusading journalism is done, but that it fills the cracks and corners of that process with marvelous little humane details and character beats. There are, at a minimum, five characters who cumulatively make up the protagonist of the movie, and each of them is given at least one scene where we get to see how they're holding up against the grim story they're digging into.

The film opens in 2001, when the Globe welcomed Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) as its new editor-in-chief. As he finds his footing, he prodded section editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (John Slattery) and "Spotlight" head Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) to pick up some scraps of info that had been lying around, pertaining to Cardinal Law's apparently willful decision to ignore complaints about a molesting priest. And thus Robby and his band - Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) - throw themselves into finding the evidence that they can, interviewing anyone willing to share their stories, and preparing themselves for the emotional fallout that comes from wallowing in such ugliness so intently for so long.

The Crusading Journalists subgenre is tiny but it has produced some really damn good movies, and while Spotlight obviously can't hope to claw its way up to the echelon occupied by the all-time great thriller All the President's Men, it makes a great showing for itself. A lot of that owes to its sensible plainness: McCarthy is a great director of actors, not at all a stylist, and the filmmaking team he heads here follows suit. Masanobu Takayangi's cinematography presents the Globe offices and the city of Boston in an unfussy, naturalistic style (the only real visual flourish comes in the form of churches looming ominously over neighborhoods); Tom McArdle's editing focuses on clarity in assembling the increasingly messy information the reporters find, while keeping the pace cranked up (the film is 128 minutes long, and they sprint by). As a result, the film's attention refuses to shift from the story and how it unfolds, presenting the procedural details of doing journalism with directness and immediacy that's not quite like anything else I've personally seen.

It also keeps the film from being particularly associated with any genre - it's not a thriller, and not a mystery, though those things can't help but flicker in at the edges. It's also not really a story about humans, which is where McCarthy's strengths as a director lie; though that also flickers in at the edges. The hybrid between two forms - character drama vs. journalism thriller - is fascinating and gives Spotlight a hell of a personality, though part of me can't help but want it to shift harder to the character side of the equation.. All of the best moments in the film center on character, especially Sacha's increasing distress at hearing stories of the emotional fallout from the abuse. Pretty much everybody in the cast, including Stanley Tucci as a morally white-grey attorney, is up to some fantastic character-building through behavior, speech patterns, physical carriage; that they're mostly all riffing on real-life people helps explain where the sheer amount of detail comes from, but it's still exciting to watch Keaton, Schreiber, McAdams, and so forth synthesising it into dramatic characters. The one weak link, unexpectedly, is probably Ruffalo, who pitches everything a bit too broad, like he's playing in the theatrical version of this story rather than a cinematic one.

The point being, it's deeply interesting to watch all of these people, all the more so since their work is historically important as well as complex. Spotlight deserves no praise for unconventional genius, but it's confident, sturdy filmmaking. This is consummate meat-and-potatoes filmmaking on the model of the New Hollywood Cinema of the '70s or the more domestic American indies of the '90s: character-focused, rooted in a clear understanding of how society works, snugly constructed. Its sins exist - Howard Shore's nudgy music, a certain procedural chilliness that sometimes creeps into the plot for a minute or two - and it's the kind of movie one recalls having really liked and admired, more than the kind of movie one compulsively re-watches. But it's good - damn good - and while its overall praise is a little disproportionate to its aesthetic modesty, it's the kind of movie that makes you feel really good about the state of grown-up cinema whenever it crops up.