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I’d like to say that being from Boston, growing up Catholic, serving as an Altar Boy in my early teens and having met the (now) infamous Cardinal Bernard Law in person on several occasions, I’d have some kind of special insight on SPOTLIGHT; which relates the true of the team of Boston Globe journalists who broke the damning story of the Catholic Church conspiring to cover up decades of sexual abuse by priests… but I don’t.
Maybe I would if SPOTLIGHT were a different sort of a movie, something more melodramatic and emotion-driven like TRUTH, I would. I certainly have emotional memories of that moment in time, bound up in the fact (dramatized to subtle but potent effect in the film) that the story felt like a double gut-punch breaking in the long shadow of 9/11, but SPOTLIGHT isn’t interested in that end of the story. Instead, there’s a conscious effort at play (in both the filmmaking and the motivations of characters within the plot) to stick to procedural-protocol in order to expose the full truth underneath a story that can’t help but be lurid, sensational and emotionally wrenching. It recognizes that the story The Globe’s famous “Spotlight” team found itself having to tell was ultimately less “explosive-expose” and more like a sombre, quietly-horrifying autopsy – not only of corruption, but also failure, complicity and willful ignorance.
The result, in reality, was one of the most important published stories in the history of modern journalism, seen by many as one of the last great moments in the fading tradition of old-school newspaper reporting. The result, onscreen, is one of the best films of the year.
It’s an ensemble piece by design, but the nominal hero is Michael Keaton (so much more worthy of accolades here than for the self-referential “tee-hee!” turn in BIRDMAN) as Walter “Robby” Robertson, the old-time stalwart running “Spotlight,” a self-contained investigate-reporting team operating largely independent of broader Globe infrastructure doing in-depth local-interest pieces. Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy are his foot-soldier field reporters, with John Slattery as their conduit to the higher-ups.
As the story opens (following a mood-setting interlude showing how easy and matter-of-fact abuse-coverups went down in the pre-2000s in reflexively-Catholic Boston), the Globe is rocked by the arrival of Liev Schrieber as a new Editor in Chief. He’s an outsider in every conceivable way one can be in a Boston old-boys club – Jewish, hails from Miami, never been to the city before, not even a baseball fan – and he makes an outsider’s call right off the bat: He wants Spotlight to look into the hot-button story of an accused pedophile priest and see if there’s something else there – as you know from history, there sure was; and soon Spotlight finds itself poised to deliver a story that will shake their city (and the world) to it’s foundations.
It’d be easy to sensationalize this kind of material, and indeed there are moments where the back-and-forth between dogged reporters, devastated victims (one traumatized tough-guy does, indeed, solemnly tell the heroes to “Get tha’ bastahds.”), scheming city power-players and secretive Church officials briefly take on the air of a crime thriller. At one point, Keaton’s Robertson is visibly shaken by the realization that one of the potential predators Spotlight unearths was a football coach he remembers from school, preying on victims that were his own contemporaries. There’s a chilling moment where, after learning that the Church quietly maintains its own “treatment centers” to house abusive priests awaiting transfers as part of the coverups, is horrified to discover one such center in an anonymous-looking house around the corner from his own. The main “B-story” even follows Ruffalo’s Mark Rezendes coaxing info out of a crusading attorney (Stanley Tucci) Deep Throat-style.
But SPOTLIGHT turns out to have sins on it’s mind beyond the showy villainy of “men of God” covering for one another’s evil: Despite a certain amount of cloak-and-dagger involving “buried” records and “missing” evidence, the true outrage of the story (at least as far as the screenplay by writer/director Tom McCarthy is concerned) is how much of it wasn’t hidden: Ultimately, the Spotlight teams discovers the breadth and scope of the conspiracy not through some singularly-damning smoking gun… but in dozens upon dozens of small stories, questionable reports and slivers of evidence spread out over decades in the Globe archives and even their own memories.
Powerful men hiding misdeeds behind black robes and ancient institutions is scary, the film argues, but an unwillingness to connect the obvious dots born of a city’s generational, ethnic and neighborhood ties to those same institutions is scarier; and SPOTLIGHT is finally more about the drive to exorcise personal guilt (“Why didn’t we see this sooner and stop it?”) than avenging journalistic righteousness. In fact, the film occasionally functions as an argument against avenging righteousness as a tool of reporting, makind a kind of serendipitous counter-argument to TRUTH, which contrives to argue that the (possible) lapses in newsroom due-diligence on the part of a 60 Minutes team were worthwhile because they might possibly have spared us a second George W. Bush term. SPOTLIGHT’s trailers prominently feature Ruffalo (who should rightfully score a Supporting Actor nod out of this) as Rezendes making impassioned pleas that they publish the report immediately before the conspirators “get away with it!,” but the film’s sympathies lie squarely with Keaton’s Robertson, who sternly insists that they cross every T and dot every I if their work is to stand up to the inevitable backlash.
Appropriately, the McCarthy’s camera (lensed by in-demand DP Manasobu Takanagi) resists showy visual flourishes with the same restraint as his script avoids dramatic histrionics; favoring matter-of-fact compositions to capture the homey banality of the Globe’s offices or the unique florescent-sepia glow of suburban Boston. What aesthetic “pops” do crop up do so with subtlety (what cinematographer worth their light-meter can resist lavishing at least a little love on New England at Christmastime, after all), particularly the presence of Boston’s intimidating fortress-like Catholic churches looming like the Eye of Sauron over exterior wide-shots as reporters, lawyers, abusers and victims scurry from scene to scene (only one beat, where a story-telling abuse victim stops to point out to McAdams their proximity to a Church – and a playground – feels overly on the nose.)
Keaton and Ruffalo will likely be the performances that stand out in a movie that’s nearly all performance (along with Tucci, whose abuse-victim attorney Mitchell Garabedian seems like a grump and a blowhard until we come to realize the full extent of what he’s dealing with); but SPOTLIGHT turns out to be one of those ensembles where everyone, without exaggeration, is turning in top-tier work. McAdams sells the weight of being “the girl” among old men in an older business so effortlessly that the movie doesn’t even need to point it out. Slattery operates as a stone-faced human mood ring, registering barely-spoken horror as evil comes to light all around him. Len Cariou finds an affably sinister current of menace in Cardinal Law – particularly in an early scene where he attempts to quietly intimidate Schreiber, who gamely sells the cunning of a man whose dry, “boring” personality is his secret weapon. And what a treat to see Boston’s own Paul Guilfoyle (“Brass” from CSI) turn up as a gently-menacing Church “enforcer.”
This is the sort of Fall Movie that it’s easy to cynical and suspicious of, particularly when the critical accolades roll in. A “topical” scandal-saga a decade after the fact is an Awards Season subgenre if ever there was one, and just try to get established film critics to not love any movie about the romance of bygone newspaper days and the heroism of oldschool shoe-leather reporting. But SPOTLIGHT, for a change, actually deserves the tidal wave of praise it’s about to receive. Here’s recent-history narrative done the right way, an acting showcase that feels like a complete film instead of a bare stage for the performers to show-off from – a procedural drama that thrills without having to twist itself into a “thriller.”
It’s obligatory, at this point, that any movie set in or around a newsroom get’s mentioned alongside ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN and ZODIAC; the gold standards of the genre. SPOTLIGHT is the first one in a long time to actually belong there.