Sunday, February 21, 2016
Director: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian d'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan
Running Time: 129 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Spotlight is a very specific kind of film in that it's a meat and potatoes procedural that doesn't wallow in emotions or dwell in the moment. Director Tom McCarthy's characters are on a deadline, back when the phrase "on a deadline" was a thing. When it carried a sense of urgency because print journalism was still alive and kicking. For those who remember that phrase, used it, or relished watching characters in movies that did, this story is yours. What it's actually about is another issue altogether, depicting the true events of 2001, when The Boston Globe uncovered a massive child molestation scandal and cover-up within the local Catholic Archdiocese. And it reveals the "how" in painstaking detail. Step-by-step. Witness-by-witness. Clearly and concisely. There's little doubt it's a tight film, but also operating on an entirely different level in depicting where journalism was then as opposed to now.
It's almost embarrassing to admit how effectively Spotlight takes us back to a simpler time since it dates any writer my age or older who'd agree it doesn't really feel like THAT long ago. It was back when reporters were given slack to fact check big stories. When those in charge of major publications went to great lengths to insure the information disseminated to the public was accurate. When newspapers were not only trusted and respected, but even wielded some degree of prestige and power. This is essential because if these events occurred now, the entire film could be relegated to a tweet that appears on screen, truthful or not. And make no mistake that Spotlight is first and foremost about uncovering the truth. It's no wonder critics and writers have been going gaga over it since McCarthy's film not only makes this airtight case against these predators, but objectively rallies behind the type of journalism it took to nail them.
In 2001, new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) joins The Boston Globe, where he'll oversee the Spotlight team, a small group of journalists tasked with writing in-depth, investigative articles that often take months of research before finally going to press. After discovering an earlier Globe column about the Archbishop of Boston's potential knowledge of a priest sexually abusing children and the lawyer who tried prosecuting it, Marty urges editors Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) to have their Spotlight team dig into it.
Reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James), track down and interview key witnesses before discovering that this entire scandal could be larger and travel higher up on the food chain than anyone imagined. But as they inch closer, they must wrestle with not only their own moral conflicts regarding these revelations, but those within the powerful Catholic Church determined to squash the story.
While this is primarily a process movie, it's littered with little moments within that process that transcend that material and turn it into something that cuts deeper. Whether it's the sudden realization by a Globe reporter that pedophiles almost literally live next door or another investigative team member coming face-to-face with a priest all too eager to not only admit his transgressions, but sickly and proudly rationalize them on the record. It's scenes like that, as well as the testimonials from a variety of different victims, witnesses and lawyers that run the gamut in terms of their experiences, giving the film its necessary emotional kick.
It's in the newsroom scenes where information is often gathered without today's unlimited reliance on the internet that will make these reporters' jobs virtually obsolete in only a few years. They go to the library for research. They physically haul books and records down the stairs. Notes are taken with only a pen and paper. For the team, most of whom grew up in this city that feels more like a close-knit neighborhood, they're tasked with exposing the corruption and sin they believed the Catholic Church was there to shelter them from.
Ruffalo's Mike Rezendes is most shaken by the revelations, but thankfully also the most stubborn, pushing lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (well played by Stanley Tucci) for any witnesses or evidence that could break a story that should have theoretically hit the presses years ago. Why it didn't and The Boston Globe's oblivious complicity in that serves to only heighten the film's statement that there's never a shortage of people willing to turn the other cheek for a variety of reasons, regardless of how heinous the crime.
With a newsroom role that recalls his fantastic turn in Ron Howard's criminally overlooked The Paper, Michael Keaton shines as Robinson, the Spotlight editor torn between his close relationships within the Church, the editorial decisions of a new boss he may not necessarily agree with, and employees who often disagree with him. Keaton plays it straight down the middle, fairly and sensibly, reminding us that while he often excels at crazy, he's as equally skilled at subtlety. If last year was his comeback, now we're starting to reap the rewards.
Schreiber's performance as Jewish outsider Marty Baron is so quietly commanding and natural it's sometimes easy to forget Barron's even in the room, much less controlling and guiding the entire investigation. We're prepared for a hotshot coming in to tell everyone how to do their jobs, but the actor makes an interesting choice in playing the Globe's new editor as a professional listener entirely cognizant of the fact there are two possible stories you can take to print. Only one will make the necessary impact.
If the inclusion of John Slattery's Ben Bradlee, Jr. represents one of the picture's many tangent connections to All The President's Men, both the character and performance aren't all that far removed from Mad Men's Roger Sterling, which can never be a bad thing. It's somewhat perplexing that along with Ruffalo, the Academy chose to also honor Rachel McAdams' information-gathering turn as Sacha Pfeiffer with a nomination. It's not that there's anything especially wrong or underwhelming in what she does, but that it's difficult to recall what was done, as she's saddled with what's easily the least developed part of the major players, bringing little more than what's written on the page. If we are doling out an Oscar nod, either Schreiber, Ruffalo or Keaton would have been more worthy candidates.
For journalism junkies, watching this might rank as the cinematic equivalent of biting into a big, juicy steak, and if there are criticisms to be leveled, it's likely to come from more casual moviegoers looking for more sizzle than substance. It's easy to argue McCarthy is so justifiably enamored with the reporting procedures that we have to occasionally remind ourselves what the movie's actually about. And when we do, the realization sets it in that it's still all about journalism and the devolving newspaper industry before anything else. This includes the actual crimes, and at one point, even 9/11, which McCarthy presents as almost an unexpected obstacle on their way to obtaining sealed court documents for their story. Unlike the aforementioned All The President's Men or the more recent Zodiac, this isn't visually memorable or even all that inventively directed, but like both, it succeeds in taking us deep inside the newsroom and along for the ride. That something this flawlessly constructed only suffers when compared to those two behemoths has to be a good sign. In getting its story right, Spotlight proves to be as focused, thorough and determined as its characters.