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Spotlight Movie Review

Spotlight (2015) movie poster Spotlight

Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015 / Running Time: 128 Minutes / Rating: R

Director: Tom McCarthy / Writers: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer

Cast: Mark Ruffalo (Mike Rezendes), Michael Keaton (Walter "Robby" Robinson), Rachel McAdams (Sacha Pfeiffer), Liev Schreiber (Marty Baron), John Slattery (Ben Bradlee Jr.), Brian d'Arcy James (Matt Carroll), Stanley Tucci (Mitchell Garabedian), Elena Wohl (Barbara), Gene Amoroso (Steve Kurkjian), Doug Murray (Peter Canellos), Sharon McFarlane (Helen Donovan), Jamey Sheridan (Jim Sullivan), Neal Huff (Phil Saviano), Billy Crudup (Eric Macleish), Robert B. Kennedy (Court Clerk Mark), Duane Murray (Hansi Kalkofen), Brian Chamberlain (Paul Burke), Michael Cyril Creighton (Joe Crowley), Paul Guilfoyle (Pete Conley), Michael Countryman (Richard Gilman), Len Cariou (Cardinal Law), Richard Jenkins (voice of Richard Sipe - uncredited)


Spotlight dramatizes The Boston Globe's four-person investigative team's earth-shattering, Pulitzer Prize-winning 2001-02 report into the rampant sex abuse and cover-ups within the metropolitan's Catholic churches. It is news that no one has forgotten, but the story of how the news broke is probably unfamiliar to most.

Enter this movie, which aims to do for the Church scandal what All the President's Men did for Watergate.

The exhaustive, methodical Spotlight team is headed by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), who works closely with Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James). Robby reports to the newspaper's editors, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), and newcomer Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). On his first day, Marty, a terse outsider who has just joined the paper from The Miami Herald, encourages a deeper look into a claim that one lawyer is representing eighty clients who have accused priests and other trusted clergy of molesting them as children.

With that, the Spotlight reporters begin doing what they do. Rezendes forces his way in to see Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), the perpetually busy and guarded lawyer representing dozens of alleged victims. Pfeiffer and Rezendes meet with two of the victims brave enough to tell their story on record. Meanwhile, Robby is trying to get answers from two lawyers (Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan) on opposite sides who have seemingly negotiated settlement payouts from the Church, but remain bound by confidentiality agreements.

The team encounters resistance from the Church, specifically Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the head of the archdiocese, who agrees to a friendly meeting with Marty but is otherwise unseen and uncooperative as the journalists take legal avenues to get damning church documents unsealed. Even as they run into some obstacles, the journalists construct a staggering picture of an outrageous system that has protected predators and left permanently scarred victims with a lifetime of guilt and a little bit of hush money.

Boston Globe editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) meets with the four-member investigative team Spotlight.

Spotlight is as powerful and riveting as film gets. This drama is very much in the tradition of All the President's Men, a no-BS look at the uncovering of corruption by hard-working people devoted to serving truth and justice. The film is directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, the longtime character actor who has garnered much admiration for a trio of earnest, highly appealing indie films: The Station Agent, The Visitor, and Win Win.

Since establishing himself as a dependable filmmaker, McCarthy has toyed with expectations, contributing story to Pixar's Up, being a for-hire scribe on Disney's underperforming Indian baseball drama Million Dollar Arm, and then writing and directing The Cobbler, an Adam Sandler vehicle that barely made it to theaters earlier this year amidst atrocious reviews. Spotlight is another change of pace for McCarthy, but a welcome one. As scribe, McCarthy has evidently thrown himself into a sea of research along with Josh Singer, his TV-seasoned co-writer ("The West Wing", "Fringe") who fares much better than he did flying solo on his film debut (the WikiLeaks docudrama The Fifth Estate). The wealth of information pertaining to this case and the Globe's investigation of it would have generated some interest on its own. But McCarthy's instincts as a storyteller keep this procedural far from feeling even a little dry.

The script does not do much to develop or humanize these journalists. We get only the briefest glimpses of their personal lives. And yet, we don't need any more than that. We get to know these characters simply by tagging along with them on the job. Work fuels these heroes. It makes them feel alive. They're not just exposing wrongdoing; they're performing a service for the community they have long called home. That the Church, which they all were baptized into, is involved only adds to the stakes.

This is not a film designed to wag its finger at the Catholic Church or to use this specific topic as part of a bigger attack on organized religion. Spotlight is much too smart a film to take up a soapbox or try to fan the flames of a scandal that we hope has been put out. The closest it comes to doing any of that is in an end credits list of locations where similar abuse claims have cropped up all around the world. Those titles assign significance and universality to the subject matter, but we don't even need that, because the importance of the investigation is apparent throughout.

Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) and Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) walk and talk through the offices of The Boston Globe.

Perhaps helped by his background in front of the camera, McCarthy has always been valued as an actor's director. He has drawn name/star-making performances from Peter Dinklage, Patricia Clarkson, and Richard Jenkins, whom he made a first time Oscar nominee at age 61. While the nature of journalism plays a part,
McCarthy must also take credit for the outstanding performances with which Spotlight is filled. There literally is not a single actor who fails to command the screen for the duration of their time there. I can't think of anyone in the cast who has ever been better in anything else. It's not as if McCarthy has attracted the biggest names; instead, he has attracted the performers best suited to these roles. To the dismay of those advocating for more diversity in Hollywood, they do happen to be primarily white men, but then this is a true story and most Boston journalists are white men. (Some may question casting Ruffalo as a Portuguese-American, but it's impossible to imagine an actor of any ethnicity being better than him here.) From actors you've never seen before (like Brian d'Arcy James, best known for playing Shrek on Broadway) to those you see all the time (like Tucci and Schreiber) to those you aren't sure you recognize (like Paul Guilfoyle), everyone gives their best, making for a magnetic presentation from which you can't look away.

While this film will garner most notice for its acting, writing, and directing, it succeeds on every level. The cinematography by Masanobu Takayanagi (Black Mass, Silver Linings Playbook) subtly keeps us from ever feeling stuck in an office and the movie does an excellent job of taking us to different places (something the stagnant Steve Jobs could have taken to heart). The production design by Stephen H. Carter (Birdman) turns back the clock fourteen years (boxy computer monitors, non-smart cell phones) without calling attention to itself (with the exception of an AOL Anywhere billboard that draws perhaps the film's biggest laugh). The score by Howard Shore is appropriately understated yet still evocative. McCarthy's forever editor Tom McArdle paces the film for maximum impact.

In short, Spotlight comes remarkably close to perfection. It's a movie that has Oscar written all over it, but without feeling like that is why it was made. It's a film that virtually no one can hate...at least until it wins Best Picture and prompts the inevitable kneejerk contrarianism from those who were backing a different horse. Spotlight has that ideal blend of art, entertainment, and importance. It's as watchable as any 2015 film, respectful of viewers, and unlikely to divide. There are still three or four potential awards contenders the public and critics have yet to see. But right now, this looks like the frontrunner, so long as it can avoid the stigma of that label and emerge from the campaigning process unsmeared and unhindered by the fact that its distributor (Open Road Films) is young and has just a single nomination (for Nightcrawler's screenplay) to its name.

Assuming it does all that, the other big questions to be asked are who to single out from this universally extraordinary cast? You can rightly assume some (like Tucci, Slattery, Sheridan, Crudup, and Guilfoyle) just don't have enough screentime to be recognized, even in the supporting categories where the studio has recommended the entire cast be placed. Keaton and Ruffalo are the most likely targets. While both were nominated for 2014 films, it's Keaton, never previously nominated, the star of the decorated Birdman, and acting in movies since Ruffalo was a young teenager, who feels more overdue. At the same time, Ruffalo has the bigger character and gives a more striking performance. There is the real possibility the two cancel each other out, leaving someone like Bridge of Spies' Mark Rylance to sneak in for the win.

Do not let this premature Oscar talk taint or trivialize my utter admiration for the film. Part of this is me just mentally preparing my own ballots for the Online Film Critics Society's annual awards, whose deadline is approaching faster than you'd think: our winners will be announced just four days after the Golden Globes' nominees are revealed.

Far more important than Spotlight's status as a contender is its status as a great achievement in cinema.

Related Reviews:
Now in Theaters: Brooklyn Room Bridge of Spies The Martian Steve Jobs Spectre
Written and Directed by Tom McCarthy: Win Win The Station Agent The Cobbler | Written by Josh Singer: The Fifth Estate
Mark Ruffalo: Zodiac Foxcatcher The Kids Are All Right | Michael Keaton: Birdman Jackie Brown The Other Guys
The Insider Doubt The Verdict Argo The Fighter Gone Baby Gone The Newsroom: The Complete First Season

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Reviewed November 13, 2015.

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