'Spotlight' Shines

(USA, 120 min.)
Dir. Tom McCarthy, Writ. Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Starring: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci
Photo courtesy of eOne Films
Fans of Linden MacIntyre’s Giller Prize-winning novel The Bishop’s Man must, must, must see Spotlight. Spotlight doesn’t adapt MacIntyre’s excellent 2009 Canadian novel about a so-called “clean-up man” of the clothe who enabled his fellow clergy to molest young parishioners without reprisal or scandal, but fans of the book are bound to be taken by this equally incendiary film about the story that broke the church’s web of corruption wide open. This true tale dramatizes the landmark 2002 feat of journalism by the Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, which exposed the cover-ups of sexual abuse in the local Catholic Archdiocese with an ongoing commitment to the story. (Read the Spotlight series here.) The complexity and wrestling with guilt and faith one reads in The Bishop's Man find a powerful counterpoint in Spotlight as the mess of cleaning up the cover-up spins a story that leaves one spinning. Print might be dying, but Spotlight makes a solid case for the value of a free, impartial, and intelligent press.

The heroic journalists of Spotlight (it would be unfair to call them anything less than heroes) are a half-dozen reporters and editors. Michael Keaton headlines the ensembles as Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson, the leader of the Spotlight team who takes the assignment to pursue allegations of sexual misconduct by a Boston priest when the Globe’s new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), asks him to prioritize the story. The assignment feels especially awkward for a Bostonian, given the city’s strong Catholic contingent and the Church’s relationship with the Globe. A lead’s a lead, though, and the Spotlight team follows it.

Especially keen to tackle the story is Spotlight’s passionate reporter Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), who chases paper trails and questions witnesses with more intuition and genuine interest than a lawyer ever could. As Rezendes and Robinson work with teammates Sacha Pfeiffer (Canada’s Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), they uncover a rampant problem. Not only do the cases of sexual abuses by priests tally much higher than the reporters anticipate, but the Spotlight team discovers a web of cover-ups and collusions that indicate that the Archdiocese willingly shuffled predator priests from parish to parish and enabled the ongoing victimization of the faithful.

What makes Spotlight especially great isn’t simply its thorough exposure of the story, which unfolds like a thriller, but rather the way in which director/writer Tom McCarthy (The Visitor) and writer Josh Singer (The Fifth Estate) root the resolve of the Spotlight team in their understanding of how the Church’s crimes hurt the victims. One especially crucial sequence crosscuts an interviews between Rezendes and a victim (Patrick LeBlanc) with an interview between Pfeiffer and another victim (Michael Cyril Creighton), and as the two reports listen to two different men explain how a mentor violated his trust, the film deftly conveys in just one sequence the collective pain to which the Spotlight piece must give voice. Editor Tom McArdle crosscuts the scene sharply and intensely, and Spotlight draws the audience in as the film cuts to close-ups as Leblanc and Creighton tell the victims’ with increasingly emotional delivery and conviction. Ruffalo and McAdams give compelling reactions shots with which the audience may look into the full scope of the story, and McAdams offers an especially fine hold on a reporter’s objectivity in this moment as Spotlight propels the audience into the investigative quest to find judgement where the system fails its victims.

Just as the Pulitzer Prize-winning story comes to the Boston Globe thanks to the skills of a whip smart team, Spotlight races towards inevitable accolades thanks to the strength of the team playing these intrepid reporters. Ruffalo gets the most outwardly expressive part of the film as Rezendes loses his grasp on objectivity and becomes increasingly, desperately, and emotionally invested in getting this story to the headlines. Spotlight gives him a standout scene to shout and hit a strong emotional point home, but the ultimately finds its staying power in the stalwart coolness and even-handedness of Keaton and McAdams’ performances as Robinson and Pfeiffer.

As Robinson, Keaton shows remarkable restraint as the veteran of the team who holds Spotlight’s integrity at the Globe like a rock. This performance is far from the showy bravura of Birdman that terrifically draws on Keaton’s persona, but his assurance and composure lends both a sense of duty and, more significantly, a level of guilt to the story that Spotlight seeks to tell. Keeping silent has a burden, and Keaton’s Robinson wears it gravely as his search into the depths of the case reveal unsettling truths about himself and journalism more broadly. McAdams, similarly, balances a journalist’s objectivity with the humanity and compassion a viewer needs to connect with Spotlight emotionally. As her character grapples with questions of faith and family while building a case against the Church, McAdams helps Spotlight weigh the gravity of the case and the load a writer carries when she or he exposes a secret that people don’t want to read. Everyone in Spotlight, from Schreiber’s level-headed outside to John Slattery’s wily turn as a Globe editor to James’s memorable fourth pillar of the reporting team to Stanley Tucci’s scene-stealing performance as a passionate lawyer, is uniformly excellent. The involving score by Canuck composer Howard Shore makes the search extra thrilling and the story deeply stirring.

Spotlight deserves to make another headline as notable rebound for Tom McCarthy. McCarthy finds himself back in his element after the unfortunate Adam Sandler comedy The Cobbler (one of this blog’s picks for the worst films of 2014) with this astute and substantially accessible drama. Like the emotional wallop of The Visitor, which unpacks the complexity of migration in post-9/11 America through a bittersweet romance, Spotlight engages the audience with the plight of believable characters whose motivations inspire viewers to leave the theatre and look at the world with a new perspective. As a newsroom drama, Spotlight is akin to All the President’s Men with its inspiring dramatization of the power of the pen, but the story it puts into the spotlight gives it additional resonance that cannot be beat.

Rating: ★★★★½ (out of ★★★★★)

Spotlight is now in theatres from eOne Films.