Sunday, November 8, 2015

Review: Spotlight

Image courtesy of Open Road Films.
In our age of 24-hour news cycles, celebrity gossip posing as actual news and SEO-driven web content, "Spotlight" may strike some as an old fashioned newspaper yarn, which it is, but it's also one of the year's most important and, certainly, best films.

Tom McCarthy's movie follows the team of reporters, editors and publishers at The Boston Globe who, in 2001, began following leads that resulted in their unearthing a massive cover-up scandal by the Catholic Church in Boston that involved the institution sheltering and protecting priests who had molested young children.

While "Spotlight" could technically be categorized as a message film - you know, the type that Hollywood tends to deliver around this time of year in search of Oscars - it's a fascinating and powerful one that is brought to life through terrific writing and a spectacular ensemble cast.

At the film's beginning, a new editor named Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) is being brought on board and the staff is not only unsettled at the prospect of layoffs, but many among the news team question his credentials. He's from Miami and has never lived in Boston, which is portrayed as an insular town with its own culture, much of which is derived from the Catholic Church.

But during his first meeting with the Globe's various news editors, he makes waves by suggesting that the paper do a follow-up on a column about a rogue priest who had been sent away to another parish after having been sexually involved with a minor as well as filing a suit to force the church to make public documents relating to the incident.

The story is passed along to the Spotlight team, a four-person outfit at the Globe that undertakes long-term investigations. The team is led by Michael Keaton's Walter "Robby" Robinson and includes the hard driving Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). They all report to the paper's Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), who is, at first, skeptical of the investigation.

Much like the great newspaper-centered films of decades past - for example, "All the President's Men," "Zodiac" and "The Insider" - "Spotlight" places an emphasis on the sleuthing element of reporting. A significant portion of the picture involves the team's tracking down witnesses or clues and sitting outside public records offices to sort through files. And yet, much like "Zodiac," these sequences are nothing short of riveting.

Although the movie places the facts at the center of its story, McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer inject a sizable dose of humanity into the proceedings. The scenes during which the victimized individuals relay their stories of abuse at the hands of priests to Rezendes and Pfeiffer are harrowing and heartbreaking and it's a good sign that a story is in the hands of a strong filmmaker when every single one of the minor characters feel well represented and the actors portraying them provide solid supporting work.

The film's ensemble cast is among the best I've seen in recent years. Keaton continues his comeback streak with his excellent portrayal of Robby, a man who fits in with Boston's society due to his upbringing in Catholic schools and his one-of-the-guys persona, but who also is willing to rock the boat when it needs rocking. Ruffalo gives one of this finest performances to date as the intense Rezendes, who begins to make the story he is covering into something personal. McAdams, who was already having a strong year with her work on "True Detective," is among the film's most sympathetic characters. She is determined to get the victims to speak, but she does so delicately.

Schreiber brings the necessary gravitas to his role as Baron, an outsider who, in one of his best scenes, tells a high ranking cardinal that his institution is at its best when it "stands alone." And there's also some very strong work by Slattery and d'Arcy James as well as Stanley Tucci as a colorful attorney representing the victims and Billy Crudup as a lawyer who has assisted in negotiations between the victims and the church.

"Spotlight" moves along at the rate of a thriller and it's a sign of great storytelling and direction when a filmmaker can create suspense with subject matter and a story to which most people already know the ending. It's a throwback to the newspaper movies of old when a team of reporters and an editor are viewed as heroic servants of the public attempting to dig deep into a story and brings wrongs to the light.

And at a time when the Fifth Estate is increasingly losing its power due to declining subscriptions, cutbacks, layoffs and being slowly replaced by internet content, "Spotlight" is a reminder of the essentialness of good investigative journalism. McCarthy's film is one of the year's most compelling and very best.

1 comment:

  1. Nathan: Fine review and top ten. I love these. When speaking of the mainstream press, we usually use the Fourth Estate; the Fifth Estate would encompass bloggers and non-mainstream writers. Despite that, I hope you're sending your stuff to major market newspapers because you're a terrific film critic. best. jd