Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Spotlight" (2015)

Starring Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo and Rachel McAdams
Written by Tom McCarthy and Josh Singer
Directed by Tom McCarthy
Rated R — Language, mature themes
Running Time: 128 Minutes

In July 2001, a new editor came to the Boston Globe, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber). Initially thinking he might need to make cuts on the Globe's special investigative team, called Spotlight, Baron instead decides to sic Spotlight on a story written about a catholic priest accused of molesting children. Spotlight, led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), starts to dig into the Globe's archives and instead finds the beginnings of a conspiracy within the church.

Robby's reporters, Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian d'Arcy James) discover more victims and, astonishingly, more priests. But the team at the Globe, including Spotlight, Baron and assistant managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), faces opposition at every turn.

The Archdiocese of Boston is a powerful organization, and they're not about to let the Spotlight team break open a conspiracy they've been sweeping under the rug for decades.

There are a lot of famous journalist characters in film and television, but at best these characters are over-romanticized and at worse they are an offense to the profession of journalism. And those films themselves are often full of bad journalism for the sake of a more dramatic or entertaining story.

"Spotlight," so wonderfully, is none of those things. It is a meticulous and accurate depiction of journalism that still feels fascinating and dramatic all the same. As someone who worked at a steadily-shrinking newspaper for the better part of a decade, I recognize a lot of the stuff going on here — and not also just because I lived in the Boston area when all the events of the film occurred.

Tom McCarthy directs with a steady, sure hand, slowly peeling back layer after layer of the story to lay everything bare. Everything on down to the film's dry wit is done in a simple, matter-of-fact manner that never manages to drain the drama or weight out of the film. Even the performances of the cast are grounded and without much exaggeration of any kind. While I'm sure that, like with other films based on true stories, certain shortcuts are made, it never feels that way.

Additionally, its representation of Boston itself and the people there is incredibly authentic, doing an even better job than this year's Whitey Bulger flick, "Black Mass" — especially when it comes to the accent.

But beyond just feeling authentic, the fact of the matter is that "Spotlight" tells a simple, powerful story in a simple, straightforward way. And it doesn't glorify anything along the way. It does not set up the Boston Globe as unassailable, and even takes the paper to task for not seeing what was happening far sooner, for ignoring all the warnings it had been given by lawyers and victims in the past. But when the time did come, it was through hard work and determination against a system that had been entrenched for decades, with roots in the very soul of a city.

The performances of the cast are uniformly excellent. Each of them feels real, and dedicated, even though we actually learn precious little about their personal lives outside of the job. We get just enough details to round them out, such as meeting Sacha Pfeiffer's very religious grandmother (which informs Pfeiffer's subplot in which she worries about how this scandal would affect her grandmother), and we learn that Matt Carroll has kids, and he's worried sick about them interacting with priests. But we always see them through the prism of the job, which fleshes them out but also keeps the film laser-focused on the story that's unfolding. Like everything else in the film, it's extremely efficient.

The supporting cast is magnificent as well. Stanley Tucci is excellent as Mitch Garabedian, a small-time lawyer representing dozens of molestation victims. Billy Crudup has a couple of really excellent scenes as another lawyer, one who gets backed into a wall when the Spotlight team presses him for info he's afraid to give. Members of the Archdiocese never play their roles as villainous, which helps considerably. Paul Guilfoyle, for example, doesn't overdo his role that's essentially as an enforcer for the Archdiocese but in the guise of a bigwig at Catholic Charities. Even Len Cariou's brief scene as Cardinal Law doesn't feel like a swipe or an attack.

The actors playing the victims have probably some of the toughest scenes because they're the ones that have to play the pain and the shame of grownups living with what happened to them. The film doesn't overdo these sequences, either, and there are two scenes in particular that stand out as some of the film's most powerful moments.

"Spotlight" is a phenomenal film, but almost deceptively so. It's so simple and so straightforward that it seems like it shouldn't be as good as it is — but it is. And you should absolutely go see it.

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