Directed by Tom McCarthy
Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Liev Schreiber Michael Keaton Rachel McAdams Stanley Tucci
Brian d’Arcy James
Spotlight is a film about how the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” feature reporters stand up to Boston’s powerful Catholic Archdiocese and expose decades of sexual abuse and cover-ups.
Described as such, you would think it sits comfortably side by side with movies like All The Presidents Men. In fact, Spotlight never pretends to be a story about intrepid reporters who employ unflinching guile to “get the story” or other journalistic tropes.
All The Presidents Men had a romanticized righteousness about it, but Spotlight instead shows us, from the very first scene to the last, how so many of Boston’s loyal Catholic culture, deeply embedded in Boston’s legal institutions, media, and community, diverted attention away from the Catholic Church’s protection of pedophile priests and enabled abuse to go on for decades.
As more and more of the story unfolds, there is a creeping, shameful awareness by the reporters that they themselves may have played a part in the cover-up to some extent by being more Catholic than Journalist.
Any comparison to the “Journalist As Hero” movie ends right there.
Also, if anyone tries to pass this off as a “procedural” they are missing the point. This film transcends the “procedural” genre and is something entirely different under the surface. You might as well call a Bugatti Veyron “just a car”
Because this is based on a true story, director and co-writer Tom McCarthy ( and writer Josh Singer ) had two very big problems. First, despite an almost un-digestible amount of events, dates, and names, they had to establish an easily understood and cohesive narrative for the audience without pulling them out of the story. Follow the bouncing ball, cinema style.
Anyone who thinks this is easy to do should watch Interstellar. Chris Nolan couldn’t quite get it right, and Interstellar suffered for it. Here, McCarthy and Singer nail it. Those famous “reporters questions”— who, what, where, when, how, why— are used to increase the action and the tension. The audience learns at the same time the reporters do. We are invested in learning more and want to connect the dots as much as the reporters do. We are a participant and not just an observer and remember everything.
The other major problem is the need for an organic reason to justify the Spotlight investigation. After all, if the Catholic Church was covering up decades of abuse, how was it that no-one at the Globe, or any paper for that matter, ever caught on? Why is it different now? The answer is Marty Baron, played with unflappable stillness by Liev Schreiber.
Since I don’t know the source material for the film I can only assume the hiring of editor Marty Baron was an actual event. In any case, Baron is the rational behind the investigation. He is new to Boston. He is not Catholic, he is Jewish. He stands away from the long shadow of the Catholic Church. He is an outlier and asks the Spotlight crew to re-examine the tale of an abuser priest and drill deeper into the story. His instincts tell him there is more there to see. The Spotlight reporters show little interest and so he gently insists and, in the process, reminds them they are journalists and they should go be journalists. It’s a stinging barb delivered not with emotion but with calm, measured authority.
McCarthy often shoots Baron alone and at a distance, often filtered by objects or people that clutter our view of him. He could have a sign on him that says “not from Boston.” Anyone used to seeing Liev Schreiber as Ray Donovan will be amused for sure.
In many ways, this is a movie without a lead actor. It’s an ensemble movie. In order for us to believe these characters we must see them engage in the little details of life. Washing the dishes, eating pizza, waiting — and more waiting, ( apparently journalists do a lot of waiting ). Close ups are rare and used only to punctuate a reaction to something we need to remember. There are some deep space shots, some tracking shots, crane shots- but nothing that says “look at me, aren’t I inventive and clever.” This movie relies on solid writing and strong acting and not conspicuous use of cinematography.
Rachel McAdams continues to show us why she deserves to be considered one of the best character actresses working today. Sure, she can play a lead. But her real strength is dominating the small parts of a film. She was an unpretentious joy to follow.
We see Michael Keaton, leading the Spotlight crew, tactical and holding back. We wonder what is beneath the surface of this character which seems so ready to evolve and risk it all. He’s doing his best work here. Keaton may get an Oscar nod.
Stanley Tucci, ever the master of quirky unconventional characters, ( no disrespect to Steve Buscemi ) plays the attorney dancing on the razors edge that is the Catholic Church. The long suffering lone soldier in a years long war against a machine he can never defeat. Until, perhaps, now. Tucci must be able to show us how it’s possible to go from defeated to hopeful with few scenes and little dialogue. Perfect casting.
Rounding out the cast, among others, are Billy Crudup, John Slattery, and Brian d’Arcy James, all of which give convincing performances.
If there is one actor in this film than can be called Lead Actor it is Mark Ruffalo. It will be a strange and petty omission by the academy if he does not get a nomination for BEST ACTOR.
In the films most gripping- and only scene of intense anger- Ruffalo crumples his face and delivers a monologue so full of frustration it was like watching a strangled man trying to cast off his strangler. He’s almost religious in his desire to rush the story to print.
Spotlight contains scenes of unflinching honesty. Descriptions of abuse were hard to listen to, not only because of our empathy towards the abused, but because the recounts highlighted the language and methods the priests used to persuade and trick their victims. Stories are told factually and without melodrama. Once we hear our second story of abuse the movie is no longer just about the strategy of crafting a core shaking expose— now we want justice.
Spotlight is a modern triumph for anyone who believes cinema can inspire and shape social justice. Also, it’s a great movie. So go see it now, at your local cinema. It’s money well spent. Beware— you may think about this film long after you’ve seen it.