- Awards-season movies tend to be flashy, melodramatic, showy films. But like the sleeves-rolled-up characters that inhabit its story, SPOTLIGHT is a nose-to-the-grindstone procedural that nonetheless is a quiet stunner. It's a movie about journalistic investigation in the tradition of old-school classics like All The President's Men - and like that film, the dogged determination of its protagonists uncovers a scandal that runs so deep and is so horrific in its implications that it's hard to believe. SPOTLIGHT builds and builds so as to hit an eventual fever-pitch level of intensity. Its story serves the dual purpose of shining a well-deserved spotlight on its heroes - the intrepid reporters at the Boston Globe's Spotlight section - and of serving as a stark reminder of the evil that these reporters uncovered; the Catholic priest abuse scandal that, for decades, had not just plagued Boston but major cities around the world. This is a movie about the importance of good journalism and of *real* journalism. This is a movie about the way that evil can fester and thrive in communities too paralyzed by fear to report it or stop it. This is one of the absolute top films of the year - a jaw-dropper that is a can't-miss, unforgettable film.
SPOTLIGHT follows a small team of journalists at The Boston Globe circa the early 00's. Led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the team is tasked with finding big, complex stories and attacking them from every angle - investigating them over a long period and then crafting feature-length, in-depth stories for the Globe's Spotlight section. After a new editor from New York, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) takes over the paper, he wants the Spotlight team to focus on big stories that will generate real buzz and get people talking. Baron quickly settles on the Church, and the ongoing allegations of priests abusing children, as his first target. Baron - an outsider as a New Yorker and a Jew - is met with a lot of skepticism at the Globe and by the greater Boston community. But he doesn't relent - hounding the Spotlight team to use whatever scraps they have as a starting point in order to piece together the story here. Slowly but surely, the story begins to unravel, becoming something far bigger than Baron or the Spotlight team could have imagined. Little by little, Robinson and team uncover evidence of priests having abused minors - on a scale that makes it more a full-blown epidemic. As the investigation proceeds, the Church protests and denies the allegations. Even many of the victims and their families are not forthcoming, for fear of bringing shame to themselves and to the Church - which they hold in high and sacred regard despite what had happened. But the Spotlight team claws tooth and nail for every shred of evidence.
In some ways, SPOTLIGHT is two films. At its core, it's a crackling investigation movie. But as that investigation proceeds, the horror of the truth about what is being uncovered makes this a movie about something more than just an investigation. Director Tom McCarthy brilliantly takes us down this rabbit hole alongside the characters. Looking at McCarthy's IMDB page, it's sort of shocking - this guy's previous credits include things like the universally-panned Adam Sandler vehicle The Cobbler. But after SPOTLIGHT, McCarthy is undoubtedly one to watch. The film sizzles with old-school cinematic tension and mounting drama, in the vein of the classic paranoid thrillers of the 70's. The film never puts character melodrama front and center, but it cleverly and effectively reveals new layers of its characters as the movie marches on.
A huge part of what makes the film work so well is the phenomenal cast. Within the Spotlight team, Michael Keaton continues his recent hot-streak as Robinson. An institution in the Boston media, Robinson's easygoing likability belies his intense determination to get to the truth, regardless of what skeletons he has to unearth to do so. It's an understated but near-career-best performance from Keaton. Understated but great could also describe the work of Rachel McAdams as Sacha Pfeiffer, a key member of Robinson's team. McAdams has been doing great stuff in general over the last few years, in movies like A Most Wanted Man and TV series like True Detective (she was, by far, the highlight of a flawed season). Here, she is the reporter tasked with seeking out and working with actual victims of priesthood abuse - and she does a fantastic job of conveying both empathy and a relentless drive to get what she needs to nail the abusers. Another major standout here is Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, a reporter focused on working with a lawyer played by Stanley Tucci to gain access to sealed court records that could directly implicate the priesthood. Ruffalo absolutely kills it here, going all in in a performance in which he's altered his dialect, posture, mannerisms, and tics in order to fully inhabit this character. As Rezendes, he plays the wildcard of the team - in contrast to Keaton's congeniality and McAdams' coolness, Ruffalo's character is a jittery, at times fiery, slightly awkward writer who nonetheless shares his colleague's drive to bring down the abusers. It's a Hulk-sized performance that is undoubtedly worthy of awards-season recognition. Brian d'Arcy James rounds out the Spotlight team, delivering yet another excellent performance. His character, Matt Carroll, is a family man who brings an everyman's perspective to the group. He isn't just worried about the story - he's worried about the implications for him and his kids.
Several other notable performances round out the cast. Shreiber is absolutely great as Baron - and the script smartly shows us different sides of the character that allows him to continue to defy expectation. Tucci's testy lawyer is another great character - a guy who seems like an unsympathetic prick at first glance, but who, we learn, has been through battles that have left him emotionally scarred.
In a way, the movie can be looked at as a pretty bleak and depressing look at an evil that was, for far too long, allowed to thrive within a sacred institution - all but swept under the rug by Church leaders and politicians. At the same time though, SPOTLIGHT is a potent reminder of the power of and need for real, thorough, fact-based, unrelenting, hard-hitting journalism. The movie earns well-deserved applause for the real-life Spotlight team that exposed the Church's crimes. But it also makes you think about the kind of media coverage that we're saturated with today - barely a decade removed from the events of the film. In an age where longform journalism is disappearing in favor of tabloid, Twitter-friendly, clickbait-grabbing, perpetual news-cycle-feeding "reporting," you have to wonder whether we are missing out on real news and real information that gets lost in the endless clutter - or, worse, never gets reported at all since it requires the kind of time and investigation that doesn't lend itself to daily website or Twitter-feed updates. SPOTLIGHT is a condemnation of the Catholic Church scandal. But that much is obvious. What it also is: a celebration of the power and importance of journalism. Real journalism. The kind that topples kings and opens eyes.
That said, this is not a "everyone wins and goes home happy" sort of movie. No - like those 70's thrillers that preceded it, SPOTLIGHT ends with a real gut-punch - a reminder that as much as the work of the Spotlight team did to expose the truth about the abuse going on in the Church, the problem was and continues to be bigger than even the Spotlight team could have foreseen. And so, the film serves as a rallying cry of sorts. We still need Spotlight teams. We still need relentless search for truth, even when said truth is unpleasant.
SPOTLIGHT really floored me. 2015 was a year saturated with movies about the media, but this one is something special. It honors and pays tribute to the Boston Globe's reporters not by being a flashy film that lionizes them. Instead, this is a movie about the power of rolling up your sleeves and getting the job done - about pursuing the truth doggedly and without bias or political or institutional influence. A movie about the power of the press. One of the absolute best of the year.
My Grade: A