Spotlight Review


I wanted to open this review with some sort of flashy pun about how good journalism shines a light on the underserved or poorly treated in our society, and because this film is called Spotlight, it does a particularly good job at that. I couldn’t find the right quote, and I see quite a few other reviews used the “shines a light” verbiage in describing this story of the Boston Globe investigative reporters who uncovered widespread sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, as well as a massive cover-up operation.

I also think the journalists who inspired this story would be unimpressed by the obvious nature of the pun. After all, one of the few edits Marty Baron, the editor of the Globe at the time, had for his Spotlight reporters was an adjective in their copy — a general no-no for news writers. A no-frills editor and a no-frills guy, Marty was, if I ever saw one, and he’s played to perfection by Liev Schrieber in one of the film’s standout roles. But like the Spotlight team itself, there’s no weak link in the Spotlight cast or the film as a whole. It’s a sensational piece of straightforward, dramatic filmmaking that uses matter-of-factness as a weapon against its audience. You don’t expect the film to pack as much of a punch as it does because the outcome is never in doubt, and director Thomas McCarthy’s approach is decidedly unfussy from the start. But Spotlight shook me up and left an indelible mark. It’s incredible.

The film takes place mostly in 2001, immediately after Baron assumed the top editor role at the Globe. The Spotlight team consists of four journalists — Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James), and their leader, Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). As Robinson explains to Baron, the Spotlight team investigates a specific subject for as much as a year before putting pen to paper on a story. He thinks they should focus on the Catholic Church, specifically a priest who was accused of sexually assaulting minors at as many as six different Boston parishes over 30 years. They take the assignment with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

And just like All the President’s Men — which is such an obvious point of comparison for Spotlight, but a fitting one for its subject matter and quality — one piece of information proves to be the tip of the iceberg for something much greater and more horrible than anyone involved could imagine. The facts and figures are out there, but I’ll leave them out of this critique of the film and let you decide how much you want to know going in. If you don’t know much about the crimes, or your memory of the early aughts is fuzzy, the staggering number of victims will broadside you.

As far as the filmmaking goes, Spotlight is perhaps the ultimate case (at least in 2015) of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Everything in McCarthy’s movie works — from the ensemble and the writing to the editing and the cinematography — but as good as individual performances and craft achievements are, it’s still hard to account for how or why this movie is so damn good.

Let’s start with the cast, and if there’s any 2015 movie that screams out “SAG Ensemble Award, please!” more loudly than this movie, I’ve yet to see it. Mark Ruffalo is best-in-show for my money. He burrows into the character of Rezendes with a ferocity and precision that you don’t see in movies like this. His physical and verbal tics are so strange, and yet, by the end of the film, they say so much about the character. He’s arguably the most hard-nosed of the team, and he’s definitely the least connected to Boston’s deep Catholic roots (outside of the Jewish outsider Baron). When his superiors tell him it’s not yet time to run the story, he personalizes it. Journalism is defeating him — slowly, but it is — and he’s not ready to let these crooks of the hook. He explodes in the film’s standout dramatic scene and reminds everyone why their city needs them.

Then, there’s Keaton — so good in Birdman last year that he’ll almost certainly take home a make-up trophy this year (even though I think he’s better here). He’s not in-your-face the way Riggan Thomson was (or the way Mike Rezendes is), but his Robby is the film’s soul. He describes himself as Spotlight‘s “player-coach,” though I’d argue he’s more a “player-coach-GM.” He’s created a team that’s effective at every position. His journalism gets done with a personal touch. Rezendes is the bulldog. And Sasha Pfeiffer and Matt Carroll knock on doors knowing they’ll get turned away 99 times out of 100. He’s a father figure for all of them, but also a beacon of friendship within the community, and his ability to balance friendship with his professional responsibilities is one of Spotlight‘s primary sources of conflict. The character manages both excellently, and both Keaton and the film’s screenwriters — McCarthy and Josh Singer — deserve credit for conveying that to the audience without shoving his moral dilemmas down our throats mawkishly.

The film never goes down that road; McCarthy has more faith in his audience than that. During a scene of heightened drama, the only flourish might be a slow pan-out by the camera or some jump cuts between his characters conducting interviews in different places. What Spotlight proves, though, is that flashing editing doesn’t create suspense, nor does yelling and shouting necessarily create drama. Great writing and acting and a director who’s confident in those two things can combine to make a perfect or nearly perfect film.

I’m not ready to call Spotlight perfect yet. Nor will I give it that scarlet “M” for masterpiece that just asks for people to tear it down, especially during the nasty Oscar season we’re entering. No, all I’ll say now is that it’s among my favorite films of 2015. It’s virtually assured a top five spot on my best-of list this year, and it’s a film I’ll get so much enjoyment out of watching again and sharing with others. It grips you and moves you. It’s about why I love journalism, and it is why I love movies.

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