★★★★ out of ★★★★
A Speaks Movie Review
Director Tom McCarthy needed some redemption this year. He made an oddball comedy, released early in 2015, starring Adam Sandler, called The Cobbler. Everybody trashed it. I didn't even see it.
Now, here is his second film this year, your Best Picture frontrunner, Spotlight, a film of calm assuredness, free of frills and excesses, drawing a picture of an institution gone just plain wrong in the darkest of ways, made darker by a cover-up of maddening proportions.
The institution alluded to is the Roman Catholic Church. And, while it's easy to make tasteless jokes and fueled-up political rants about its lurid child abuse scandal brought to light over the course of 2001 and 2002 by the crack "Spotlight" team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe, this movie is everything but a smear campaign. It is a story of people torn between doing the right thing and turning against the Church that was supposed to teach them the right thing.
In 2001, Boston's number one daily hired an outsider as editor in Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a quiet Jewish loner known previously for his work at The New York Times and The Miami Herald. Since he has no ties to the Catholic Church, besides that he lives in Boston now, where nearly everyone is Catholic, he is the perfect guy to shake things up.
A Boston priest of forty plus years named John Geoghan, among others, has a line of people claiming sexual abuse. Nobody, not even the Globe, is covering the story. Why? That question is posed first to Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his superior Ben Bradlee (John Slattery). Robby heads up the slow-moving, deep-digging investigative team the title suggests, a group of fearless journalists, including Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo) and Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). It is decided in Baron's first editorial meeting. This is the story Spotlight will chase.
Drawing comparisons to the great procedural journalism pictures like All the President's Men, McCarthy's film is downright perfect in every way. It shows us three fully-developed worlds; one of power-driven corruption, one of devastating mental illness and addiction brought on by pedophilia, and one of investigative reporting.
It doesn't demonize the Church or priests. In fact, we hardly see any of the accused priests. It only so subtly breaks through "the system" that led the cover-up, headed up by Boston Archdiocese Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou). It is maddening but not hateful. Important but not proud. Riding those lines is a masterstroke of filmmaking.
Lawyers are involved as well. One out to tear down "the system," the one to speak for the victims of these abuses in Mitchell Garabedian (Stanly Tucci). The other is one beaten down by the Church itself, forced into shady dealings and cover-ups in Eric Macleish (Billy Crudup). Then, there is one afraid to even talk of it, though he knows so much in Jim Sullivan (Jamey Sheridan), the attorney representing the Church.
The triumph of this film, apart from the lines drawn by McCarthy's direction and the tight script by McCarthy and screenwriter Josh Singer, lies in the performances from Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, and Mark Ruffalo. Especially Ruffalo.
As Michael Rezendes, Ruffalo provides some of the films most personal moments. Moments that remind us of how this scandal (one I only vaguely remember) affected everyone of the Catholic faith. He and this crew of journalists are all lapsed Catholics, remembering a Church they loved and thought they might even go back to one day. Their faith, even in the lack of it, was tested. And, through these performances, so is ours.
Keaton, as the leader, the one with the connections, provides another performance, after last year's Birdman, that works again to prove just how solid he is. We are glad to have him back. His Robby is a tough man, willing to take blame, admit fault, and never falter on getting his story.
As I alluded to before, Spotlight is not a flashy, showy exposé meant to make us angry and even more cynical and skeptical than we already are. It is a film meant to enlighten us on the ways of journalistic integrity and excellence, through which it becomes a means also to enlighten a darkness that shrouded a Church of astounding history and importance to thousands of our world's cultures. A Church with a billion members, all of whom felt the sting that the work of a half dozen Boston newspaper men and women poured over, cried over, lost chunks of their lives over, in order to issue truth to the public.
We can only thank them for it and appreciate the work only the greatest journalists can do. For inspiring that alone, it is easy to call Spotlight one of the best films of the year.