MPAA Rating: R/Genre: Docudrama/Stars: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Liev Schreiber, Stanley Tucci, Gene Amoroso, Jamey Sheridan, Billy Crudup, Maureen Keiller, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Neal Huff, Michael Countryman, Michael Cyril Creighton, Laurie Heineman, David Fraser, Tim Progosh, Jimmy LeBlanc; Voice of: Richard Jenkins/ Runtime: 129 minutes
A long time ago in the far gone year of 2015, the land of movie magic ensured that we as movie goers got to see not one but two slices of cinema that took them on a journey inside two distinct news rooms to regale us with both the tales of how two high-profile stories were reported on as well as the fallout and impact that both stories had on the world to say nothing of those who reported them. With that in mind, we as movie goers saw that the first of these two investigative journalism slices of cinema was the James Vanderbilt-helmed and Robert Redford in the lead role film Truth. A not-bad, but not great slice of cinema that takes us behind the scenes of the iconic show 60 Minutes in particular the special they aired dealing with then-President Bush (the second one) and his time in the armed forces during Vietnam. A special that incidentally came under fire due to the journalism team’s failure to authenticate the validity of what they were reporting on and as a result led to some pretty significant shakeups occurring behind the scenes at CBS including a certain lead esteemed journalist and his main producer being shown the door in an attempt by CBS to save face. Suffice it to say that the cinematic take on this event is not a bad movie by any means, but like I said a great movie it also most assuredly is not. From there we see that a few weeks after that film came out, audiences got another investigative journalism film. A slice of cinema from film helmer Tom McCarthy known as Spotlight (incidentally the same movie I am reviewing for you today) and one which shows how the highly regarded Spotlight investigative reporting team from the Boston Globe managed to lay bare for the world to see a giant sex abuse scandal involving priests that were part of the Catholic Church. A scandal that stunned/sickened the world, and led to a complete transformation in how a lot of people have chosen in the time since to look at the church. Now this is the slice of cinema that proved to be the better movie with both the general movie goer and the movie reviewer in equal measure. Indeed whereas Truth was a good movie that did at times trip over its own feet, Spotlight is a complete and utter triumph in nearly every single aspect. Indeed it’s narrative is significantly more riveting, it’s helming by McCarthy is a heck of a lot more nuanced, it’s collection of performances is absolutely phenomenal no matter how big or small their role may be, and from a technical perspective this slice of cinema is absolute aces. Suffice it to say that yes there is no doubt in my mind that this film’s subject matter is undoubtedly going to be hard for some people to sit through, but there is no denying that this film respects that and as such is a powerful and potent film that everyone should see at least once.
The plot is as follows: Spotlight gets its riveting yarn underway in the city of Boston during winter 1976 as we witness as a detained priest by the name of Father Geoghan is quietly let go by the cops to be handled by the Archdiocese rather than face legal action. From there the film moves forward by close to three decades later where we see that this same Father Geoghan has now been stripped of his status as a clergyman and has been accused of inappropriate behavior with over 80 boys when he was a priest. Yet even the Boston Globe runs a piece here and there on it, it’s not until a new top editor by the name of Marty Baron arrives in Boston and, feeling this should be a priority for the paper, assigns the story to the paper’s investigative unit called Spotlight and their leader Walter “Robby” Robinson. From there, the film covers the slow yet steady investigation from a few distinct fronts so to speak. The first of these involves a gifted and dedicated yet also borderline stubborn reporter named Michael Rezendes who persistently attempts to get the aid of a lawyer by the name of Mitchell Garabedian since Mitch is not only the lawyer for the 86 plaintiffs in the Geoghan case, but who also has submitted vital documents that the Church is desperately trying to keep from the public eye. Meanwhile, another member of the team named Sacha Pfeiffer is assigned to look into any other priests who have may have been just as abusive as Geoghan which she is to do not only by interviewing victims, but also by going after a lawyer named Eric MacLeish since his attempts to keep the Church accountable have pretty much come up flat. Finally, we see that a 3rd avenue is pursued by the last member of the team Matt Carroll as he has managed to uncover a fairly brilliant way to trace the allegedly pedophilic priests and show that the Church was very much aware of what these priests were up to all at the same time. Yet as the investigation begins to go on for longer than they anticipated, we soon see that it begins to dawn on the team that their assignment on this is not merely to reveal the proverbial few “bad apples in a bunch”. Instead, it’s to show that there has been a systemic cover-up going on that goes all the way to no less a religious institution than the Vatican. Thus we see that the question soon faced by this team of skilled journalists is not just one of what can they publish. Rather, it is also one of when can they publish since not only do they want to write the most riveting story possible before their competition can get their hands on it, but also before the Church gets wind of what they are up to and decides to pursue a course of legal action, to say nothing of PR warfare, against the Globe……
Now yes I know that this movie possesses a title card that tells people what they are about to see is “based on actual events”. At the same time though, I would like to point out that might be a tad bit erroneous. I say that because in many respects this slice of cinema is not all that distinguishable from a documentary in the manner in which it showcases for movie goers the investigative journalism that led to the jaw-dropping scandal involving the Catholic Church. Yes the film gets underway with a quick glimpse at a happy trails-kinda party for one of their co-workers, but fairly swiftly we see our main group of characters head back to their “top secret lair” where their super gadgets consisting of their notepads, computers, telephones, and desks are so they can figure out their next moves on their assignment. Suffice it to say that, thanks in large part to the wonderfully workmanlike helmsmanship by Tom McCarthy and work from the cinematography department being led by Masanobu Takayanagi this slice of cinema does an amazing job at showing us how chaotic a work day is for these people without utilizing a lot of the stylish editing techniques that can take away from the realism a movie of this ilk is aiming for. Yes I know that to some of you a lot of this might sound very, dare I say, boring. To this reviewer however, I found it absolutely riveting to be getting a front row seat to this truly riveting look at all of the choices that are made (or not made) when it comes to getting the scoop on a huge story that you plan to print. Choices incidentally that include dealing with lawyers who represent both sides, machinations with executives who might not be on the up and up morally or legally, and various clashes between every major group possible including the Church who (to no surprise) really didn’t want this particular story being put to print. Yet perhaps the best thing I really appreciated is how Tom McCarthy and his crew behind the camera also choose to approach this material not just like a documentary, but also as if we are watching an unofficial sequel to a mystery film with a journalism framework like All the President’s Men. Indeed not only do we get the prerequisite heated interviews with potential sources who might be able to give up some invaluable clues, but the crew also makes it so that as the film goes on you figure things out at the same rate as the cast of characters so when the reveals come (and boy do they) you are just as floored as they are. That and we also see that when this slice of cinema makes the choice to present us with moments that other slices of cinema have done previously including poking through old records, doing the hundred meter dash to a courthouse to get access to vital material, and going door to door to get important questions answered these moments don’t feel run of the mill or tired by any stretch. Rather, this slice of cinema and her wonderful crew do a terrific job of making moments like these and others feel both as novel and as riveting as they have been in quite some time thus making for a film that will have you engrossed right from the very first frame.
Now as he managed to showcase in his earlier cinematic efforts, the helmer of this film has a beautiful way of bringing out the best in a wonderfully low-key manner with the cast he is working with. Thus it should come as no surprise to learn that the cast he has managed to assemble here is a model for subtle excellence. This starts with one of my favorite actors Michael Keaton and, to no surprise, he is absolutely terrific. Indeed as the veteran leader of the Spotlight unit Walter “Robby” Robinson, Keaton does a great job at playing a fairly even-keeled individual on the outside even as internally his mind is raging away. Indeed much in the same way as Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino, the character of Robby is a crusty yet fairly decent guy whose views are very much of his generation, but who is desperately trying to find where he fits in a world that is changing all around him. In Clint’s case, it meant abandoning his racial prejudices and looking out for people he previously looked down on. In Keaton’s however it means going after an institution that he has spent his whole life trying to protect from criticism of any sort. Suffice it to say it’s a very electric performance from one of the more underrated talents in the world of movie magic. Yet Keaton is not the whole show here. We also get a delightfully kinetic and frantic performance from Mark Ruffalo as reporter Michael Rezendes. Indeed Ruffalo’s character may at times seem like half human and half Energizer Bunny, but he still manages to give both a screen presence and a gravitas that comes to play beautifully in a scene late in the movie where we see just how much of a toll this story has taken on this poor guy. We also get beautifully understated work from the immensely talented Rachel McAdams who, in the role of Spotlight reporter Sacha Pfeiffer, gives us yet another riveting turn especially when it comes to her scenes with both the victims and with locals who aren’t exactly keen on the story she is writing. Now backing this trinity of potent performances is a genuine powerhouse of support talent including a wonderfully grumpy Stanley Tucci, Live Schreiber, John Slattery, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, and Paul Guilfoyle to name but a few and they are all just as wonderful no matter how big or small their part in this may be.
All in all it is a wonderful and special rarity in the land of movie magic when a film helmer of some skill and style manages to give audiences a slice of cinema that, by and large, is an outright misfire only to then follow it up with a slice of cinema that is downright phenomenal. Yet even if he wasn’t in the midst of trying to rebuild his career following the Adam Sandler fiasco that was “The Cobbler”, it should still be said that film helmer Tom McCarthy can still say with satisfaction that with this slice of cinema he has a powerful and terrific cinematic accomplishment that he can genuinely be proud of. Indeed here is a slice of cinema dealing with journalism at its finest that, as previously stated, is very much in the format of something akin to “All the President’s Men” in regards to how it is both solemnly riveting as well as a slow build towards its revelations that are nothing short of gut-twisting and heart-wrenching all rolled into one. More than that though, this is one even-keeled yet extremely diligent drama that manages to make its way through a phenomenal collection of evidence that, when it all is laid out before you, manages to showcase not just the horrific abuse people have suffered at the hands of the clergy in the Church to say nothing of their absolutely disgusting attempts to bury it under the rug, but also the Church’s distinctly and elite spot in a world that has let these victims down at pretty much every single level possible in their lives. Yes the result might be a tough pill for a lot of moviegoers to handle given their religious affiliations. At the same time though, the narrative on display is absolutely riveting to say nothing of cathartic and the cast are all true powerhouses in every sense of the word. Suffice it to say then that the slice of cinema that is 2015’s Spotlight is one that should definitely be given a look. Just don’t be surprised if you find yourself floored and close to tears by the end of the film. I know I was. On a scale of 1-5 I give Spotlight “2015” a solid 4.5 out of 5.