Film Score: Howard Shore Cinematography: Masanobu Takayanagi
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Leiv Schreiber
Spotlight takes its title from the team of investigative journalists at The Boston Globe doing something almost unheard of today, spending months or even years on writing in-depth stories of substance and relevance to the community. In the case of the film, the thrust of the stories by The Globe was the Catholic Church’s complicity in covering up the molestation of young children that had been happening for decades. The priesthood had always been a source of controversy concerning inappropriate behavior, and for years various charges and court cases had been pursued against specific priests. What was unique was the way in which the church would simply transfer priests to another, unsuspecting, parish and the behavior would begin again. And so when the stories in 2001 finally exposed the whole, sordid affair, there was more of an understanding nod of the head than anything outright shocking. The film Sleepers, from 1996 had even dealt knowingly about the subject. What this film does, however, is put a human face on the crime. The initial contact that the team makes with a former victim, Neal Huff, is extraordinary in the way that he paints the priests as predators, grooming their victims and inflicting what he calls “spiritual abuse.”
The film begins with an episode from the 1960s; a parish priest has been brought in by the local police on charges of molestation. A young cop tells his desk sergeant that it’s going to be difficult to keep the media away from the arraignment, and the sergeant responds by saying, “What arraignment?” The scene then shifts to 2001, John Slattery as the managing editor of The Boston Globe, Michael Keaton heading up Spotlight, and a new senior editor of the paper, Leiv Schreiber, due in any time. Keaton’s team, which includes Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and Brian d’Arcy James works out of the basement, and when Schreiber arrives there’s concern that he will simply cut the department. But he’s read a column in the paper about a priest who was alleged to have molested kids in six different parishes over thirty years and a lawyer for some of the victims claims that the cardinal of Boston knew about it all that time and did nothing. The lawyer, Stanley Tucci, has absolutely no faith that the paper--or anyone else--is going to do anything that the community will interpret as an attack on the church. It’s not until Ruffalo, followed by the rest of the Spotlight team, shows their determination in exposing the abuse that he gets onboard to really help them. But there’s also another twist involving Michael Keaton and what he knew about the crimes while he was a new editor.
It’s a tremendously well-done film. Director Tom McCarthy, who had been acting since the late eighties and directing for the previous ten years, teamed up with Josh Singer, who had written for The West Wing, and attempted to focus on the journalistic side of the story rather than the crime. The duo won an Academy Award for their screenplay, as did the film for the best picture of 2015. For Michael Keaton, it was his second appearance in a row in an Oscar winning film after starring in Birdman the year before. Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams both received nominations, as did McCarthy for his direction and Tom McArdle for editing. The acting in the film is uniformly excellent, though for most of the actors trying to do a Boston accent, it was somewhat less than convincing. It certainly wasn’t as on the nose as Good Will Hunting attempted to be--and was the better for it--but it was still odd. Keaton really anchors the movie as a veteran editor who not only has to strong-arm his friends to get verification, but also has his own sins to atone for. Ruffalo goes out on a limb here by playing a character who is not himself, and that feels odd as well. McAdams is probably the weakest of the bunch. The other standout is Stanley Tucci, who has been delivering stellar performances ever since he turned forty-five.
It’s not a flashy film, and doesn’t sport cutting edge cinematography like Birdman, or The Revenant from the same year--though the cinematographer for both those films, Emmanuel Lubezki, won the Oscar for the later. It plays more like All the President’s Men from 1976. The color palate on the film is also quite nice, with muted tones and an overcast feel to the exterior shots even though much of the story takes place during the summertime. The pacing is also quite nice, and McCarthy isn’t in a hurry to get his characters from one place to the next in the breathless way the Redford-Hoffman film unfolds. The reporters are diligent and willing to do the unglamorous job of research and writing in order to make a positive impact on the community. With the demise of the print media in recent years, however, it’s difficult to know if there will every be stories like that again that can have a major impact on society by rooting out institutionalized corruption. Newspapers can’t afford to keep reporters on staff who don’t earn their keep on a daily basis, and so the days of long-form investigative reporting may be over. Despite the subject matter, it’s not a sensationalized story and is rewarding even on repeated viewings. Spotlight may not be the most exciting film of the year, but then that’s never been what makes a great movie. And this is an exceptional one.