Film Review: 'Spotlight'

There's no shortage of excellence in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, which features a bravura cast set in a gripping story.

There's no shortage of excellence in Tom McCarthy's Spotlight, which features a bravura cast set in a gripping story.

★★★1/2

It was Steve Jobs who famously proclaimed: “the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” If there’s any film today that epitomizes the truth of his words, then Tom McCarthy’s biographical drama Spotlight should be at the forefront. Borrowing its title from the real-life team of Boston Globe-based investigative journalists, the film thrillingly chronicles the events leading to the 2002 publishing of their bombshell report on widespread sexual abuse within the local Catholic Archdiocese. Yes, the subject matter of their research is absolutely stomach-churning to hear, and the reporters hate uncovering such disgusting truths, but their passion for their work and devotion to public knowledge drives them forward. McCarthy gives the story the all-star treatment with great acting, a riveting script, a solid score, and a finish that leaves the viewer reflecting on the film's earth-shattering discoveries.

Thankfully, Spotlight’s less-than-palatable central conflict is contrasted by the charismatic investigative team, captained by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton, with an impeccable Boston accent). Spotlight team is famous throughout Boston for their thoroughly-researched and illuminating articles that leave Robby indebted to his arsenal of energetic reporters: a sympathetic Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams); the detail-oriented Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James); and the passionately assertive Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). They foster an atmosphere of accountability and solidarity that permeates the small office where they work their magic – and as an audience, we experience their infectious enthusiasm first-hand, as if we sit and work alongside them.

(Universal / Open Road Films)

(Universal / Open Road Films)

Their newest lead comes from fresh Globe editor and Boston newcomer Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), who encourages Spotlight to further investigate a story from a previous Globe column about the Archbishop of Boston, who turned a blind eye to sexual abuse by one of his priests. It’s a risky subject; the chance of stepping on toes is high, and the article would surely draw the swift scorn of the Church and the Globe’s readership. After some heart-to-hearts, Robby and his Spotlight team agree to tackle the case.

The deeper Spotlight digs, the more horrifying it gets. But what McCarthy has done is treat the reporters’ research and handling of graphic material with artistic sensitivity and poise, making their investigation highly intriguing to follow. Clues and tidbits are laid down in each scene to be followed up on in future scenes, and the accompanying character development makes Spotlight evolve as it progresses. This eloquently written screenplay gives the enormity of Spotlight's efforts their due portrayal.

The most praise can easily be heaped upon the fantastic ensemble cast that has been assembled by McCarthy. McAdams makes Sacha a sensitive yet serious reporter; a welcome counterbalance to the straightforwardness of Robby and Matt. Sacha is the emotional core of Spotlight, and McAdams holds nothing back in showing that emotion.

Yet it’s Ruffalo’s physical and witty turn as Mike that proves to be Spotlight’s marquee performance. Never taking no for an answer, Mike is not only tenacious but ingeniously crafty; he waits until the receptionist leaves the room to barge into a boss’s (Steve Kurkjian) office to ask a few questions, and he bribes another one to use their photocopier. His moments are bridged with his hustling from Point A to Point B and back – and he does so with unbridled devotion to his job. Ruffalo’s Best Supporting Actor nom should come as no surprise to anyone that has the pleasure of watching him in Spotlight, and neither should it for McAdams's Best Supporting Actress nom as well.

(Universal / Open Road Films)

(Universal / Open Road Films)

Only discussing Spotlight’s headliners would not do its bit players justice, who arguably compose the collective face of Catholic sexual abuse victims. Interviewing with both Sacha and Mike, they make the film’s highly sensitive subject matter all the more convincing by bearing the psychological – and even physical – scars from their priestly captors, even several years after the fact. Their stutters, tears, and dramatic pauses make their stories so convincing that they could almost be the real victims themselves. Listening to their stories is absolutely haunting, but that’s what makes Spotlight so realistic and impactful; this abuse becomes a clear and present danger.

All the more reason, then, that McCarthy simply had to give the Spotlight team their due respect. He made all of the right casting decisions – from A-listers to bit players – and gave them a screenplay that allowed them to excel in their roles. Long takes let the enormity of the on-screen events and realizations truly sink in, and a contemporary, brooding score by James Sizemore, while undoubtedly beautiful, paradoxically instills the anxiety and confused fear that infects the victims. Spotlight is completely enveloping already; with its many other assets, the movie becomes irresistible.

There’s no doubting how terrible this story was, but Spotlight makes clear that this story absolutely had to be told. And the reporters researched and wrote their story as effectively as they did because they possessed a true love of their civic duty; an impact maximized by the film’s outstanding ensemble cast. Spotlight is an homage to their passionate efforts, and the movie is as perfect a presentation of their efforts as it can possibly get.

Written by Josh Singer & Tom McCarthy.

Directed by Tom McCarthy.

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, and Rachel McAdams.

© 2015 Rex J. Lindeman.   All rights reserved.   |   (760) 274-5948   |   rexlindeman@gmail.com

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