Movie Review: “Spotlight”

Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci
Tom McCarthy

Writer/director Tom McCarthy’s reputation took a pretty hard hit following the release of his abysmal fantasy-comedy “The Cobbler,” but he’s quickly redeemed himself with “Spotlight,” an excellent, no-nonsense newspaper drama that falls closer in line with his previous work. It also happens to be one of the finest movies of the year and a safe bet for a Best Picture nomination. Though the film is fairly low-key for a potential awards contender, “Spotlight” relies on some top-notch acting and writing to recount the fascinating true story about a group of journalists who lifted the lid on a massive child molestation scandal within the Boston archdiocese that changed the way we looked at the Catholic Church forever.

Set in 2001, the movie begins with the arrival of the Boston Globe’s new Editor-in-Chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), an outsider from Miami who was brought in by the newspaper’s parent company to help shake up the newsroom and stop the leak in the dwindling subscriber base. When Marty takes an interest in a recent column about a local priest who was accused of sexually abusing children in his parish, he convinces editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) – who leads the four-person investigative team (played by Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James) known as Spotlight – to drop what they’re doing and discreetly poke around to see if there’s more to the story. Robinson reluctantly agrees, but is skeptical that they’ll find anything of substance. As the team begins to dig further into the list of allegations, however, they expose a decades-long cover-up that’s bigger and more far-reaching than any of them could have possibly imagined.

“Spotlight” is the best film about investigative journalism since “All the President’s Men,” and it’s similar in many ways too, from the daily grind of searching through documents and chasing down leads, to operating under extreme secrecy so as to not rouse the suspicion of, in this case, the Catholic Church and its powerful allies within the city. The reason the movie works so well is because it doesn’t feel the need to overpraise its characters or sensationalize events. Though most directors would be tempted to go that route in order to maximize dramatic effect, McCarthy is more interested in the process itself. These journalists weren’t heroes – they were just doing their jobs, and the methodical process of their reporting is incredibly engrossing stuff. The film may move at a snail’s pace, but it’s never boring, creating suspense out of something as innocuous as retrieving sealed court documents.

Because the movie focuses more on the investigation than the reporters themselves (we see very little of their lives outside the office, and even then, they always seem to be working), there are no standout performances. Everyone plays their part and plays it extremely well, but it’s ultimately about serving the story over a particular character. Keaton, McAdams, James and Schreiber all deliver outstanding work, while John Slattery (as Projects Editor Ben Bradlee Jr.) and Stanley Tucci (as crusading attorney Mitchell Garabedian) are also good in supporting roles. The only actor who warrants any real awards consideration is Mark Ruffalo, but while he creates a fully realized character with his spot-on impersonation of impassioned Globe journalist Mike Rezendes, the role lacks the necessary depth to make him a serious contender.

Still, even without a commanding performance to hang its hat on, “Spotlight” manages to be every bit as powerful and poignant as its subject matter demands. That’s due to the terrific ensemble cast, as well as the smart script by McCarthy and Josh Singer, which doesn’t hold back its criticisms of the Catholic Church’s heinous conduct or those that helped cover up the scandal, but isn’t exploitative about it either. “Spotlight” lets the story speak for itself, and though it’s one of great importance that needed to be told, the movie is first and foremost a celebration of the journalistic process that made it possible for the courage of a few to be heard by the entire world.