A film review by Craig J. Koban December 1, 2015



2015, R, 127 mins.


Mark Ruffalo as Michael Rezendes  /  Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer  /  Michael Keaton as Walter 'Robby' Robinson  /  Brian d'Arcy James as Matt Carroll  /  John Slattery as Ben Bradlee Jr.  /  Liev Schreiber as Marty Baron  /  Stanley Tucci as Mitchell Garabedian  /  Billy Crudup as Eric Macleish  /  Jamey Sheridan as Jim Sullivan  /  Len Cariou as Cardinal Law  /  Paul Guilfoyle as Peter Conley

Written and directed by Thomas McCarthy

Much like ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, Tom McCarthy’s SPOTLIGHT is a gracefully low key and masterful handled account of real life investigative journalists uncovering a lurid injustice with wide spread ramifications.  

Whereas Alan J. Pakula’s 70’s era film concerned itself with the political crime that was Watergate, SPOTLIGHT casts a crucial light on a series of Catholic sex abuse scandals that rocked Boston in the early 2000’s, which was uncovered by the Boston Globe’s crack “Spotlight” team and made national headlines.  Perhaps even more so than ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN, McCarthy’s film is an important one for showcasing how intrepid and unwavering newsmen and women were at unraveling a pattern of systematic sexual abuse and broad scale attempts to cover it up.  As a result, SPOTLIGHT becomes a love letter to the magnitude of solid investigative journalism, not to mention a dark reminder of some very recent and prevailing pedophilia scandals that have dogged the Catholic Church ever since. 

It should be noted right from the outset that SPOTLIGHT is neither anti-faith nor anti-religion.  It’s not on some crusade to demonize Catholics or priests in general.  No, McCarthy and company here are attempting, I think, to take a tactful and thoughtful look at the whole laborious process that was involved at uncovering a malicious widespread crime that just happened to involve the Catholic Church on a large level.  It’s also a film that never goes out of its way to place the journalists that uncovered this story on a high pedestal of instant hero worship (these people were flawed human beings that often brought in – without sometimes knowing it – their own biases into covering the story while trying to remain level headed and objective).  SPOTLIGHT takes faith in multiple levels quite seriously and points out how these scandals deeply hurt people that were practicing Catholics, some of which were journalists and their own families. 



The Boston Globe article in question was published on January 6, 2002, written by Michael Rezendes with the headline “Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years,” which is a head-turner of a headline if there ever was one.  The Globe’s Spotlight team would eventually win a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for their series of articles covering the Catholic Church’s indiscretions.  McCarthy’s film is a slow burning, yet completely mesmerizing chronicle of the entire process by which this team meticulously pieced together every clue possible to right a massive series of wrongs.  Even when faced with incalculable odds – both personal, spiritual and emotional – in pursuing their leads, these reporters were bound and determined to let the public know of these horrendous tales of abuse perpetrated by the Catholic Church…and no matter how unsavory it might be to handle for some readers. 

McCarthy has assembled as fine of a cast of any film from 2015.  The Spotlight team in SPOTLIGHT is comprised of editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) and his three reporters, Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matty Carroll (Brain d’Arcy James).  MAD MEN’s John Slattery plays Globe managing editor Ben Bradley Jr. that shares a link with many of his fellow staff in being a proud Bostonian and having some connection to the Catholic faith.  When a new editor in Marty Baron (Live Schreiber) comes in he’s instantly perceived as an outsider, mostly because he isn’t native to Boston.  Yet, he grabs the attention of his team early on when he brings up a recent Globe article that points towards a potential cover up Boston’s archdioceses of various sex abuse scandals.  In his mind, tackling such a huge story with limitless impact in the pursuit of the greater good seems like a win-win for all.  The Spotlight team agrees. 

Of course, Baron doesn’t see this as a simple investigation of one or two priests that engaged in immoral behavior with children and then covered it up.  No, he has a vaster ambition to see this story through to pull the curtain back to reveal a larger and more global Catholic system that’s wantonly engaged in criminal activity.  That’s the overall hook.  Predictably, this means that Robinson and his team have to be remarkably patient with their investigation: Publishing too soon would undo Baron’s aims, but not acting on some of the credible information they’ve been giving would allow for other newspapers to swoop in and take over the story.  Part of the inherent suspense that lies in SPOTLIGHT – which, amazingly and obviously, contains no action beats – is how it fosters nail-biting tension in the smallest ways. The dramatic intrigue is of the race-against-the-clock variety, which often involves scene and after scene of reporters reading through church memos, directories, interviewing victims, and taking notes in private.  SPOTLIGHT is completely on point for reminding viewers that investigative journalism is really tough and arduous work that requires the utmost commitment. 

McCarthy is one of the finer and more intuitive actor’s directors working today, which is evident in the sense that he too is an actor.  There’s not a false note here from any of the resoundingly fine performers that McCarthy has placed in front of the camera, all of whom give sublimely restrained and tactful performances that never engage in camera mugging grandstanding.  Keaton, hot off of the success of his Oscar nominated work in BIRDMAN, is in outstandingly fine form playing an editor that has to walk a fine and difficult line between being loyal to his reporters, the larger story at hand, and his superiors.  Schreiber and McAdams also do superlative work of immersing themselves completely in their characters with a real immediacy and economy.  I especially liked two key performances, the first being from Mark Ruffalo, who perhaps has the largest character arc of anyone here in the sense that he skillfully segues from an enduring and focused reporter to one that develops a near manic obsession with ensuring that the Catholic Church's crimes are revealed as quickly as possible.  The second is from Stanley Tucci playing a victim’s lawyer that reveals – almost entirely through his eyes – a whole anguished and frustrated history of fighting Catholic injustice.  His many scenes with Ruffalo are among the film’s most finely rendered dramatic moments. 

McCarthy also wisely knows that the entire city of Boston is also a character that casts an oppressively large shadow over everyone in the story.  SPOTLIGHT does a remarkable job of showing different Bostonian neighborhoods and locations, each with their own inherent flavor.  The film also understands the social class divide that typifies much of the city.  Many of the victims of priest abuse were from impoverished and broken homes without strong guiding paternal figures.  One of the more damning commonalities that many victims interviewed in the film share is that the priests preyed upon such downtrodden children because they were easily susceptible.  As one teary-eyed victim relays in one heartbreaking scene, when a priest asked him to do something it was “like God” was in his presence.  SPOTLIGHT underscores the plight of the countless number of children that had their innocence stripped away from them, leaving them all challenged with acclimatizing themselves to some semblance of a normal adult life later. 

McCarthy just might be one of the most criminally underrated directors working today.  Films of remarkable variety like THE STATION AGENT, THE VISITOR, and WIN-WIN are proof positive of that.  He’s hit another high dramatic plateau with SPOTLIGHT, which not only emerges as a great investigative journalism movie (in a somewhat stagnant genre these days), but it’s also a superbly nuanced and sensitive account of bringing intolerable social injustices to light.  In the film’s end credits we see several title cards filled with hundreds of cities across America that had Catholic Church sex abuse crimes revealed via the Spotlight team’s initial article and their tireless work afterwards.

What the Spotlight team did was important…and this is a very important movie.  Not too many movies these days are just that. 

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