“Spotlight” Movie Review

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     Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s newsroom drama, “Spotlight”, doesn't need to convince the audience of its importance, since the film’s subject matter does that completely on its own.  This is one of those rare films where the characters, as well drawn as they are, move through their individual and collective workdays with the kind of purpose that indicates just how high the stakes really are.  And McCarthy’s camera moves right along with them, putting the audience in the front seat next to the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting team as they begin to uncover the unthinkable.  “Spotlight” is the true story of the Globe’s Spotlight investigators reporting of massive cover up within the Catholic Church involving dozens of Boston area priests who had been caught and/or accused of molesting children for decades.  That alone will shake you to the core when you begin to understand the widespread problem this was when the team uncovered and reported the facts of the case in late 2001 and early 2002.  Unlike “Truth”, the film which chronicled the ill fated “60 Minutes 2” story that attempted to expose holes in George W. Bush’s military record, “Spotlight” never allows its characters to grandstand with the material.  Rather than portray giddy overjoyed reactions to their findings, the Spotlight team remains professional and on point throughout their investigation.  Sure they seemed emotionally invested, but it wasn’t for political gain or the fame that comes from breaking a story.  From the top down, it was clear these reporters were doing what they thought was right.

     With 9/11 all too fresh on everyone’s minds, it’s possible many may have forgotten the magnitude of this story, as it competed against our efforts to topple the regime in Iraq and the ongoing hunt at the time for Osama Bin Laden.  With victims numbering in the hundreds and the reveal of similar cover ups in major cities all over the world, this story proved to be no less important.  Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) was the catalyst for the story once he was named the new editor of the paper and began to prioritize a number of stories he discovered by reading columns in competing newspapers.  Baron was new to the area, having cut his teeth in newsrooms in both New York and Miami, and didn’t have the instant credibility and trust of a born and bred Bostonian.  And yet he handles his new role with the kind of professionalism that should merit its own separate leadership study.  In one key scene, Baron is told by Spotlight chief Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton) the team chooses its own stories to investigate and is never actually told by an editor to cover a particular story.  Rather than call rank and give an order to the well tenured Robinson, Baron remains consistent in his reserved yet firm demeanor and rephrases his request into a suggestion.  A message that comes through to Robinson in a way that allows him to remain empowered and doesn’t harm the dynamic between him and his new boss.  As it turns out, Baron was on to something that would ultimately lead to Robinson and his team winning the Pulitzer.

     Schreiber’s performance is one of the best in a film full of them.  The script, written by McCarthy and Josh Singer, carves out several distinct personalities amongst the lead characters, allowing each actor to really shine in every moment they are on screen.  Put simply, these characters are alive and full of life.  The authenticity conveyed by Keaton’s Robby Robinson is central to the overall story, as he with his sharp Boston accent, attended high school locally and grew up with many of the town’s key figures.  An attribute that certainly comes in handy when he needs to cut through red tape and find out exactly what he’s dealing with.  The people he is able to call know him, and he knows them, which allows his team to get to the truth a little faster.  Perhaps his relentlessness as an investigative reporter has rubbed off on his team, especially Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) who penned the original article for the Globe.  Ruffalo hums along through each scene like a natural in this environment.  His investigations created the basis for the story as he uncovered facts by way of interviewing past victims who agreed to talk with him due to his budding relationship with the attorney who represented many of the victims, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci).  Rezendes is the kind of journalist who pushes the envelope just enough and has the knack for asking the right questions at the moment they need to be asked.

     Equally as skilled are Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), who round out the team and bring their own unique ways of tracking down important information to the table.  Pfeiffer is featured in one of the more compelling interviews in the film where very specific details are uncovered that have otherwise been buried for decades.  At the heart of all of this is the question as to whether or not the higher ups in the Boston Catholic Church were aware of what was going on when it was estimated that up to 90 area priests were found to have molested children within their parishes.  Baron asks his Spotlight team to look at the story from a big picture point of view.  Is this a systemic issue?  Did Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the top man in the church, know what was going on and if so, what did he do about it?  Of course, if you remember this story when it was reported, you already know the answer to those questions as the investigation led directly to the top via the successful unsealing of key court documents that condemned all involved.

     As a feature film, “Spotlight” does much more than simply tell a story many are already familiar with.  The way it cuts deep into the stranglehold many of this country’s institutions have on our society is equally important, as the film exposes the once hidden shroud of darkness that had besieged the Catholic Church and asks why they were seemingly above the law in the eyes of so many.  As the story unfolds, we meet people from all over the Boston power pulpit who knew what was going on, but for some untold reason refused to help the story go public.  It begs the question, what or who are they protecting?  Were these people truly afraid of God’s wrath for coming forward against the church and standing up for countless innocent victims?  In an early scene, we watch as Baron is invited to meet with Cardinal Law as he is told it is a custom the Cardinal has with every new Boston Globe editor.  It was very telling to see the Cardinal’s reaction after he tells Baron the church looks forward to working together with the Globe, but Baron replies a newspaper is always more effective working independently.  Right there, we understand there were unspoken agreements in place with his predecessors that no longer applied and the Cardinal knew it.  And though the story would ultimately bring shame to Cardinal Law and the Catholic Church, his punishment as determined by Pope John Paul II was a high position in Rome where he still resides today.  

     One of the best films of the year, expect “Spotlight” to make plenty of noise in the upcoming awards season.  Nearly every aspect of the film is solid and the subject matter is handled tactfully in a way that shows respect to both the investigative reporting and the individuals involved in the cover up.  “Spotlight” may have been even more effective had it been produced ten years ago, but it is nonetheless a powerful example of how compelling a feature film can be.  GRADE: A