SPOTLIGHT (2015) review
written by: Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
produced by: Blye Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin & Michael Sugar
directed by: Tom McCarthy
rated: R (for some language including sexual references)
runtime: 128 min.
U.S. release date: November 6, 2015 and November 13, 2015 (limited)
“Spotlight” is a movie that reminded me how mentally, emotionally and physically exhausting news reporting can be. Not the 24/7 reporting you see on the cable networks with the incessant news scroll or the nonstop media outlets that grab any trite morsel for a headline, regardless who it harms or if its real. I’m talking about the unsung journalists who could care less about what they’re headshot looks like next to the printed article they slaved over. The shirt-stained, stale coffee-drinking writers who research and fact-check and scribble in their notepad in their effort to reveal the truth. The kind who ask their interviewees for their trust. These are the characters that inhabit writer/director Tom McCarthy’s new film “Spotlight” and it’s a movie that also reminded me that good journalists know the weight, the power and the potential of their work and it is shown in their dedication and stubborn resilience.McCarthy’s story follows the 2001 coverage by six reporters at the Boston Globe of the expanding number of priest sex-abuse scandals throughout the archdiocese in the Boston area. The ugly seed of the conspiracy began with the case of Father John Geoghan, a child molester who was conveniently moved from parish to parish by the Catholic church for decades, racking up on account of 130 abused children.
That’s just one priest the staff of the paper’s Spotlight section uncovered. The crack investigative team led by Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Michael Keaton), soon realized that what they found was only the tip of the iceberg and the scope of abuse takes place long before Geoghan and well after.
This all started when the Globe received a new editor in July 2001. Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) left his position as executive editor at the Miami Herald to take the job as editor of the Globe and decided to shift the paper’s focus from international news to the local Catholic priests sexually abusing minors. Marty gives Robbie’s Spotlight team the story and they learn how in-depth the systemic cover-ups were and receive pushback from colleagues, friends, organizations, law firms and important individuals in the church.
Stowed away in their own corner of the Globe, the Spotlight team consists of three writers overseen by their editor Robbie, who reports to assisting manager, Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery). They are: lead writer Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), a curious seeker of truth who knows how to turn on the charm and become a boomerang when needed, Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), who builds an uncanny level of trust with the abuse survivors she interviews and family man Matty Carroll (Brian D’Arcy James), who dabbles in horror fiction on the side, in order to cope with the emotional stress of his work.
The three of them hit every angle of the story and experience slammed doors, repeated sit downs with cagey attorney Eric MacLeisch (Billy Crudup) and stubborn attorney Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), scheduling talks with frustrated or distraught survivors, reluctant lawyer for the church and good friend of Robbie’s, Jim Sullivan (Jamie Sheridan) and the staunchly uncooperative Cardinal Law (Len Cariou). For months, they flip through boxes of dog-eared requisitioned files and binders full of cataloged clergy members, all to uncover and corroborate the entire story before it can hit the stands.
From start to finish, “Spotlight” will have your full attention. Its fine storytelling earns it. McCarthy never feels the need to sensationalize or over-dramatize the investigation. There’s no need. His screenplay and cast are spot-on and he respects the work of a journalist by emphasizing the grit and intelligence it takes to follow leads and ask not just the hard questions, but the right questions. There’s absolutely no reason to glamorous any of it, because it never equates to true journalism. McCarthy tells a wholly compelling story, free of dramatic shortcuts that shows respect for both the profession and the audience. He trusts viewers will see right away how important and huge this investigation is and provides a dense screenplay that always keeps us engaged.
The film’s ensemble cast is one of the year’s best and each of the main characters are given enough screen time to offer convincing character arcs. Keaton could be playing the older, wiser Bostonian version of the New York editor he played in the 1994 Ron Howard movie “The Paper”. His character here has the most growth in the movie and comes around to some sobering realizations. Ruffalo delivers a performance similar to his fine work in “Foxcatcher” with physical tics and piercing expressions. He really brings out the Boston-born Portugese journalist’s passion, decency and determination that reside underneath his pushiness and impatience. His scenes with the expectedly great Tucci are some of the best in the movie.
McAdams may have less to do here than the guys, but I appreciated her character’s contribution, especially a subplot how she sees her grandmother’s (Eileen Padua) devout religiosity in light of what she is learning. Schreiber’s Marty is a fascinating study – a quiet listener who internalize all the effects pursuing such story will surface, like a chess player counting the steps of one move. Again, this is really such an outstanding cast to watch.
McCarthy’s attention to detail is impeccable in “Spotlight”. Not just the day-t0-day reporter’s grind, but also the environment and timeframe of 2001. While there’s plenty of computer work involved, we still see notepads in this flip-phone world as well as AOL billboards outside the dank file rooms and fluorescent lights of the newsroom. The settings feel used and real, matching the mood and tone of the story perfectly. Of course, with this being the year of 9/11, we also see how every story was put on hold, including the Spotlight’s, to cover the terrorist attacks. Such coverage never feels sensationalized because it’s coming from the perspective of writers in the trench – some of them had friends who died that day.
For a story with such upsetting and shocking revelations, it’s quite a subdued film. Thankfully, it never drags, nor does it feel like a slow-burn. It’s paced is just right, allowing the emotions of the investigation come naturally rather than crescendoed outbursts – although when there are verbal flares, it’s well-earned. Howard Shore’s piano-heavy score has a recurring thread that feels like it could be the opening title sequence of a Spotlight television series and the measured cinematography from Masanobu Takayanagi’ (“The Grey” and “Silver Lining’s Playbook“) offer the right lighting and movement to the environment McCarthy provides.
There have been so many movies involving journalism or newspapers, that it’s hard to look at another portrayal on-screen with a new set of eyes. Jonah Hill played a journalist in “True Story” earlier this year and it’s hard not to think of “All the President’s Men” while watching this movie. If anything, McCarthy’s movie can easily stand right alongside that classic.
“Spotlight” doesn’t vilify the Catholic church, there’s even an angle that incriminates the Globe – although it’s ironic that the Spotlight reporters are either lapsed Catholics or non-believers – the movie just adds up the facts and leaves viewers to decide what to make of it all.
In fact, the closing credits reveal how the Catholic church’s cover-up became, based on the coverage of the Globe’s 2001 news story. There’s a long alphabetical list of places around the world where priest abuse scandals were uncovered – from Austria to Tanzania – as well as numerous towns and cities across the U.S. The depressing list is endless and I couldn’t help but think about the amount of cases that were and still are unreported. But just thinking about what this Pulitzer Prize – winning news story did proves what heroes these reporters are and what potential real-life journalism can have.
I found “Spotlight” to be an absolutely riveting story, but then again I’ve always found the work of journalism to be as important a job as teaching. “Spotlight” is remarkable filmmaking on many levels and will most certainly receive Oscar nominations for Best Picture, Screenplay and some acting categories. Maybe even Best Director, considering this is such a redemptive turn-around for McCarthy’s “The Cobbler”.