Spotlight (2015) / Drama-Thriller
MPAA Rated: R for some language including sexual references
Running Time: 128 min.
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery, Brian d'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Jamey Sheridan, Neal Huff, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenplay: Tom McCarthy, Josh Singer
Review published November 22, 2015
In 2001, the Boston Globe's new editor-in-chief is Marty Baron (Schreiber, Pawn Sacrifice), a Jewish media exec coming in from Miami to take over the reins of a paper that has always catered to a predominantly Catholic community, but a readership that's also on the cusp of primarily getting their news through their AOL connection and the World Wide Web. Baron's first order of business is in getting to the guts of what the paper does and try to make it more relevant to the community of readers they serve. In a conversation with Walter "Robby" Robinson (Keaton, Minions), who leads a four-person investigative squad known as "Spotlight", Baron persuades them to put their current story on hold and dive headfirst into getting to the root of a story about a priest who has been accused of several instances of molestation in the Boston community he serves, as it seems he has had a pattern of doing this wherever the Catholic Church has placed him, only for the story to be mostly buried and see him re-emerge in another community some time later.
With the Church having such strong influence in the town, Robinson knows they're going to face strong opposition wherever they dig, but the more resistance they get, the more they become convinced that the problem isn't just one priest, or several -- it's an entire system within the Church that systematically keeps the stories under wraps for fear of shining a light on the many disturbing criminal acts within from individual serial perpetrators, as well as the environment of cover-ups that allows them to operate, seemingly without impunity.
Tom McCarthy (Win Win, The Station Agent) directs co-scripts this patient, but increasingly absorbing and well-researched investigative procedural drama that will be a shoe-in for most 'Best of 2015' lists at the end of the year, and easily land a nomination for Best Picture, where it's likely to become an instant frontrunner. But it's not your traditional high-gloss, sumptuously presented Oscar-bait film -- it's a movie as rumpled and blue-collar as the neighborhoods it portrays. This is a lived-in world of people who drive economy cars, down fast food and coffee, and who have little time to unclutter their desks. Every floor, every office, every refrigerator, every bookshelf, and every person feels entirely 'lived-in' at the time we catch them. Great locale work in and around various parts of Boston, both well-known to tourists and locals, also adds to the authentic flavor of the piece. It feels like we're actually in 2001, watching real people on the beat.
Spotlight will join the ranks of the upper echelon of films about the medium of journalism, on par with the likes of previous Best Picture nominees, All the Presidents Men and The Insider. Though there is a great deal of ground to cover and players involved, it's to McCarthy's credit that he always keeps the drama moving forward without grandstanding, and gives us a good amount of character development in short order that gets us keyed on on just who everyone is and what each person has at stake in the story at large. What's most impressive is that McCarthy resists the urge for giving his fine cast of actors powerhouse oratories, or in crafting good vs. evil depictions of its characters injected into a traditional story arc leading up to major reveals and a nail-biting climax.
And yet, Spotlight is still riveting, primarily because it feels so real, as we see the kind of dedication, sacrifice, and perseverance of those who've chosen a profession that, while many malign them, can do a great deal of good for people in the community, particularly those with no place else to go to see justice served. That authenticity is the key to our belief in this film; when scenes of reporters sifting through a stacks of Church directories in the newspaper archive room and in the wee hours at the public library can feel suspenseful, you're doing something right in the storytelling department.
In addition to the to-the-point script choices and solid direction, Spotlight features a fantastic ensemble cast, spearheaded by Michael Keaton, who continues his resurgence, on the heels of his Oscar-nominated turn in Birdman, to the ranks of top-flight actors worth banking on with another terrific and nuanced performance as lapsed Catholic but Boston-bred Robby Robinson, the lead reporter caught in a proverbial pressure cooker that might have chewed up and spit out most reporters. The same can be said for the sizable supporting performance of Mark Ruffalo (Avengers: Age of Ultron), who delivers the closest thing the movie has to an 'Oscar clip' for the film when his character, top reporter Michael Rezendes, blasts his colleagues for not going immediately to press on the first instance when they have what they feel is incontrovertible evidence of wrongdoing -- it's a fantastic moment that further solidifies the reason why Ruffalo is one of the best in the business.
I could go on down the line, as there isn't a bad performance in the bunch, but I should take the time to give kudos to Liev Schreiber and Stanley Tucci (Mockingjay Part 2) for more great and memorable character work, having a great deal of impact on the film as a whole in what amounts to a relatively short amount of screen time. Not to be lost in the shuffle, Rachel McAdams (Southpaw) is just as good as any of the men in a relatively non-flashy role as Sacha Pfeiffer, one of Spotlight's core crew.
Since the time in which Spotlight is set, many city newspapers have gone under, and those that are left have been gutted to barebones proportions, and couldn't afford to pay their best to sit on stories for months or years to work on one story, which makes one wonder if such an incredible exposť of deep-seated community issues like the one showcased here would ever come to light in this click-driven internet era we find ourselves in today. People just don't read print newspapers in the numbers they used to, and those that do check out news online do son more from viral links in their Facebook walls or Twitter feeds, many of them dealing with celebrity fluff or politically skewed sensationalism. The importance of local newspapers is readily evident, but sadly, nearly fifteen years after the events shown here, its presence in the hearts and minds of many communities big and small may be gone forever.
Regardless of the nostalgia for hard-nosed newspaper journalism, Spotlight is a dynamite movie with powerful story, stellar performances, and an assured talent that drives it to become one of the year's very best films. As a film about journalism, it shows us the importance of patience in telling a powerful story. As a film in general, it also shows us the power of telling a patient story.
©2015 Vince Leo