by Kathie Smith
“The Church thinks in centuries.” This statement—delivered by a cynical lawyer played by Stanley Tucci in Tom McCarthy’s new movie Spotlight—painfully underscores the apathy that seems to pervade public opinion when it comes to the moral manipulations and power exploitations wielded by the Catholic Church. Everyone claps their hands and says “hallelujah” when the Pope acknowledges global warming but then collectively turns their eyes toward the floor when the Church, time after time, attempts to evade responsibility for the unchecked sexual abuse of children. What else could explain this phenomenon other than the fact that the Roman Catholic Church has carefully honed the art of influence over Western society for nearly 20 centuries?
Director: Tom McCarthy
Producers: Blye Pagon Faust, Steve Golin, Nicole Rocklin, Michael Sugar
Writer: Josh Singer, Tom McCarthy
Cinematographer: Masanobu Takayanagi
Editor: Tom McArdle
Music: Howard Shore
Cast: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, John Slattery
Premiere: September 3, 2015 – Venice Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: November 6, 2015
US Distributor: Open Road Films
Spotlight, an analytical thriller driven by journalistic prowess in the vein of All the President’s Men, dramatically documents the Boston Globe’s 2001 investigation exposing a chronic cycle of pedophilia by Catholic priests, a breakthrough moment in exposing the Church’s culpability. But where All the President’s Men crescendoed with a real-life historical catharsis—one of the biggest scandals in the history of the White House, capitulating, of course, with Nixon’s resignation--Spotlight does quite the opposite and leaves us in a state of suspended emotional release. A conspiracy was uncovered but hardly deactivated. Thirteen years on, open any newspaper and find the same stories, which signify either a prolonged fallout from the Boston Globe’s initial exposé or the Catholic Church’s refusal to change its modus operandi.
To its credit, Spotlight avoids employing collective guilt and heroic righteousness as emotional devices to drive a point home. Instead, it has other things on its mind besides than standing on a soapbox, and its drama is drawn out with surprisingly understated details and measured performances. We join the leagues of the Boston Globe as outsider Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) steps in as the paper’s editor, with the rest of the staff suspecting the worst from him in the form of cuts, layoffs and shakeups. (Perhaps not coincidentally, Spotlight’s time period, 2001, marks something akin to the beginning of the end for printed newspapers and journalism as we know it. The industry has cut the number of journalists by a fifth since that year.)
Spotlight, the Globe’s four person investigative team led by Walter ‘Robby’ Robinson (Michael Keaton), is particularly nervous, and rightfully so—their work involves months if not years of research before the ink even hits the page. Instead, however, they find a quiet yet imperious advocate who obliges the team to drop the story they are working on (with some protest) and look a little further into a story about a Catholic priest accused of sexually abusing a minor. Despite the conceit of this coincidental serendipity (day one, enter new hard-nosed editor; day two, said hard-nosed editor identifies one of the biggest stories of the paper’s history), Spotlight is surprisingly methodical with its drama as Robinson plows a political and diplomatic path while his team—Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James)—casts a physical net for information on the streets and in the caverns of Boston.
The action, such as it is, strikes a balance between punctilious delivery and visceral pulse with an efficient use of its two hour runtime. You won’t find much in the way of stylized filmmaking, with cinematography and editing doing just enough to hold the movie together but little more. Pacing, on the other hand, is certainly part of the equation that makes Spotlight effective—systematically brusque, including a delay in the research as all reporters were pulled into 9/11—as well as an underlying precariousness in facing the power of the Catholic Church, with everyone cautioning the reporters to leave this issue alone. But the key components are the award worthy performances from Keaton (worlds away from his overrated performance in Birdman), McAdams, and Ruffalo. What Keaton and McAdams achieve in subtlety, Ruffalo tackles with aggressive verve. As Rezendes, Ruffalo plays a guileless yet determined investigative reporter with a passion for truth and justice but without reducing those qualities to a cliché.
On paper, Spotlight reeks of an Oscar bait issue movie—stacked with an astute cast and an edgy, but not too edgy, topic. The real magic of Tom McCarthy’s film is that it defies those obvious traps in favor of solid storytelling. (Who knew the director of The Visitor and The Cobbler had it in him?) The inflammatory subject of pedophilia among Catholic priests, perhaps best documented in Amy Berg’s Deliver Us from Evil, takes a backseat to the restrained romance with journalism and the respect for the role of newspapers in society. By telling a straightforward story with low frills, Spotlight lingers in the mind and only solicits a response to the scandal the next day or the next week or the next month, when the headlines of yet another priest or yet another cover-up by the Catholic Church smacks you in the face. Spotlight’s unwillingness to take any chances, and simply tow a standard line as far as production goes, counts as both its strength and weakness. But in era of tired sequels, special effects acrobatics, and Star Wars, Spotlight, with the theatrical staying power that defies marketing logic, pulls in the audience, the critics, and (most likely) the awards.