Spotlight

Spotlight movie poster

Release: Friday, November 6, 2015 (limited) 

[Theater]

Written by: Thomas McCarthy; Josh Singer

Directed by: Thomas McCarthy

Every so often a film drops with little or no warning and leaves a lasting impression. 12 Years a Slave did it three years ago via punishing violence and bravura performances; a year later Gravity achieved unparalleled visual grandeur films two years on are still trying to match. Spotlight almost undisputedly fits the bill as this year’s crowning cinematic jewel, though its impact is far less visceral.

Thomas McCarthy has chosen to revisit The Boston Globe’s 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the systemic and enduring sexual abuse of children at the hands of Boston-area Catholic priests and the subsequent cover-up by the Archdiocese under Cardinal Bernard Francis Law. What began as an inquisition into the number of isolated incidents quickly evolved into a more encompassing exposé in which it was discovered priests, rather than being dismissed from the church outright, were simply reassigned elsewhere in the country and were being protected by Cardinal Law. The publishing of the first article led to his resignation as Archbishop of Boston in 2002.

‘Spotlight’ refers to The Globe’s investigative journalism team, presently the oldest such unit still in operation in the nation. McCarthy’s methodically-paced and consistently compelling approach brilliantly and subtly pays homage to the work of Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) while exposing the underbelly of an institution that traditionally (or ideally) exercises superlative judgment of character and protection of cultural, spiritual and societal values.

Spotlight is information-rich and faced with the prospect of weaving together multiple, fairly complex relationships. McCarthy spares precious little time in getting to work. At the request of editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) the foursome are encouraged to suspend their current assignment in light of Baron’s concern over The Globe’s failure to dig deeper into a past case involving child molestation that was put on the back burner as far back as the 1980s. In the wake of the 2002 revelation over 600 follow-up articles would be published by the same paper, though the film elects to depict the researching and ultimate crafting of the very first story, one that, as Schreiber’s pragmatic Baron predicted, would have “an immediate and significant impact upon [the paper’s] readers.”

Drama presents investigative journalism as one of the last bastions of truth-seeking, as well as social and cultural enriching, and its vitality seems particularly quaint set against this day and age in which increasing numbers turn to social media for their ‘news’ — a concept that, in and of itself, could do with some spotlighting as it’s becoming harder and harder to separate the wheat from the chaff. A cherry-picked cast of certifiable A-listers, one that includes John Slattery as projects editor Ben Bradlee Jr. and Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup as Boston lawyers who specialize in sexual abuse cases, collaborate on an inevitably award-winning screenplay, penned by McCarthy along with Josh Singer.

There’s a collective energy amongst the group that affords Spotlight much of its profundity and their natural portrayals effortlessly absorb, a notable lack of melodramatic tension between key players resulting in a kind of harmonious interaction between spectator and creator that’s rarely been seen this or any other year. It’s impossible to single out a role without mentioning another; though if I were compelled to nitpick I’d nominate Keaton and Ruffalo as the performers with ever-so-slightly more screen time. Still though, Spotlight is an example of a true team effort and if the film finds itself in the running for Best Actor in a Leading Role the sextet of performers, in an ideal world, should find themselves on stage accepting the golden statuette.

What nudges McCarthy’s undertaking into the realm of bonafide classic is the delicacy with which he approaches the grim subject matter. We’re talking about — and periodically confronted with the survivors of — child molestation. I doubt I need to repeat the term to send chills down your spine. Yet, if you fear for the worst: depictions of the acts themselves, graphic or otherwise, or even a considerable amount of time dedicated to traipsing through the vileness of the Catholic Church’s most shameful hour, fear not. Spotlight isn’t interested in dwelling on the past. It is interested in and, more importantly, reliant upon history however, and getting hands dirty is a requisite if we are to get to the bottom of an issue that has consequently spread like a cancer across the globe. One that, sickeningly enough, has just as much relevance more than a decade on.

Indeed, what’s most crucial in recreating this wholly unsettling discovery, in acknowledging the effects it had on not only the Catholic faithful but on those asking the tough questions, is the mirroring of several pillars of fundamentally sound journalism. The film, though it may not be quite as timely as it could have been, is as concise as is feasible for a story with this many implications; accurate (despite a few outcries over the depiction of a select few characters) and brutally honest. Dialogue-driven narrative plays out with the tenacity of an Aaron Sorkin screenplay, though it’s far less poetic and lends itself more to conversation. Never mind the fact it continues to build in intensity as the statistics and evidence continue piling up to a level few, if any, seasoned reporters at The Globe could have been prepared to embrace.

Rare are the films that understand the importance of shaping events and characters in such a way that they appear the genuine article. Rarer still are those that transcend the form so as to actually become reality. Spotlight qualifies as one such film, blurring the line between dramatic feature and documentary presentation if only in how it confirms that the best films truly manifest as art imitating life. If McCarthy’s restrained focus on the life and times of these writers and this paper and the relationship between the church and the people of Boston has any one, significant impact it’s that reality can be (and indeed is) uglier than anything movies fabricate, convincingly or otherwise, in an effort to entertain or disturb.

decisions, decisions, decisions

Recommendation: Spotlight is a remarkable production. It manifests as a powerful advocate of journalism as a mechanism for change (an admittedly ever-weakening one at that in today’s gossip-geared papers and online posts) and a noble profession. It simultaneously unearths a disgusting, alarming reality that continues to trouble the Church to this day and it provides audiences spanning multiple age brackets some sense of what it was like to become involved in this story. Mind you, this isn’t a film that means to entertain. It’s 100% informative and revelatory. In my mind, it’s one of the most impressive works I have ever seen for these reasons and more.

Rated: R

Running Time: 128 mins.

Quoted: “It’s time, Robby! It’s time. They knew and they let it happen to kids, okay? It could have been you, it could have been me, it could have been any of us. We gotta nail these scumbags, we gotta show people that nobody can get away with this, not a priest or a cardinal or a freaking pope.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

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34 thoughts on “Spotlight

    • Many thanks Natasha. If you’re interested in strong storytelling, and journalism-related films I can’t think of anything better than this one.

  1. I keep hearing amazing things about this movie, and it has become something I would really like to check out. Great work, as always Tom! Plus, I like a chunk of the cast. Hope to catch it soon.

    • The cast is stellar in this picture. And as good as they are, this is a movie about the story which I so value. There are not enough films like this to go around. That’s one reason I think this is the film to beat for me this year.

    • Your support slaps a big smile on my face buddy. 😉 This movie has really hit a chord with me as I think it’s pretty difficult to make journalism-based films compelling without taking dramatic liberties. Spotlight isn’t technically perfect in that regard (some are noting that a few characters are misrepresented), but what movie truly is perfect?

      I can say with confidence this is my #1 film of 2015 so far.

        • I know I hate it man, it makes it so difficult to put together year-end posts when you take into account things you almost can safely assume will be best in show but then technically can’t be included b/c of a later release date. why can’t all the best ones come out globally at the same time? haha

          No matter. The wait will be well worth it man.

          • That’s exactly what I’m pondering right now. I done a mid-year list and didn’t include films such as Foxcatcher and Birdman even though they came out in 2015 over here. Dunno what I’ll do for my year-end list. Given they were part of the Oscars bunch, I compartmentalise them as 2014 films.

  2. Sounds really good Tom. It’s not out here yet (not sure when it’ll be playing) but I notice it is getting a lot of love in the US. High up in your top ten perhaps?

  3. BRAVO x10! Well said Tom and I’m with you. Can’t remember if we’ve discussed it before but I do love this one. In fact it is the only 2015 movie I’ve given a perfect score to and I haven’t an ounce of hesitation about that. Man this thing clicks on every level. Powerful story, performances, script, direction…every level. Love it.

    • I think I first became very anxious to see it after reading your review and one from Mark Hobin. Both gave it high marks, but your 5-star rave was really what sent it into must-see territory for me. I have to say it’s well-deserving of that! You’ve said it best: everything clicks on every level. I can’t believe how restrained a film it is and yet there’s so much drama found throughout. Such a magnificent story that honors both the survivors and the power of journalism as mechanism for change.

  4. Spotlight is a pragmatic and clear headed approach to investigative journalism. On my review, you mentioned you were interested in making a comparison with another recent movie about investigative journalism, Truth. Thoughts?

    • Crap, I forgot I had mentioned that! 😉

      One thing is definitely clear: this is the superior product, but the two are doing different things. Truth was about the prestigious reputation of a few journalists, which only now strikes me as odd since good journalism isn’t really about drawing attention to those who crafted the story, it should be about the sources and the stories themselves. (Although it does make sense to draw attention to the writers in that case since we were talking about Dan Rather.) But in comparison, Spotlight is so much more well-rounded, and the subject matter these writers were dealing with is really disturbing. What a shameful chapter in the history of the Catholic Church. It’s sad that it continues on today.

      One thing that really riled me up though was the amount of people who were exiting the theater before the list of cities in which these events are still occurring today had finished scrolling. That was unbelievable to me. . .

      • I’m amazed that there’s a always 1 person that leaves just as the story is winding down, but before the movie is over. There is literally only 5-10 minutes left!

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