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Spotlight

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 11/13/15 08:21:37

"Mass Appall"
5 stars (Awesome)

As most of you have probably heard by this time, the once-proud newspaper industry appears to be in its death throes, a victim of changing times, evolving technologies and accelerated news cycles. This is, of course, a shame for us all but purely on a personal level, I find this development to be doubly tragic. Of course, it is a bit of a bummer to find out that the field that you had spent your entire life dreaming of participating in is in the process of going down the proverbial crapper (though I at least managed to both see my work in actual newsprint and receive a couple of Chicago Sun-Times bylines along the way). What is almost as bad is that the gradual end of newspapers as we know it is that it also means a gradual end to the newspaper movie as well. As someone interested in both journalism and film, newspaper movies have always been favorite of mine, whether they were broad comedies like "His Girl Friday" or "Continental Divide" or classic dramas like "Zodiac" or, arguably the champ of the entire subgenre, "All the President's Men"--the latter was such an inspiration that to this day, whenever I am struggling to get the words going, I put on the Blu-Ray as one might put on a favorite piece of music and that is usually enough to get the creative juices flowing.

However, if the newspaper movie has to go out--and while someone may one day craft a compelling drama about a blogger doing their business, it really isn't going to be the same--it may as well go out on a high note and that is what you get with the powerful new drama "Spotlight." In chronicling the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation by the Boston Globe of pedophile priests in the Catholic Church and the lengths that the Church went to in order to cover up the frighteningly widespread scandals, the film eschews any numbers of opportunities to milk the material for melodrama in order to provide both a rigorous examination of the actual nuts and bolts of such a journalistic effort and an elegy for a time when newspapers could actually make a difference to the lives of their readers. While this low-key approach may not appeal to those hoping for the usual Oscar-courting histrionics, those looking for a good story told in a strong and sure manner will be rewarded with one of the best films of the year.

The film opens with a prologue set in 1976 in a Boston police station where a Father John Geoghan is being held after being accused of molestation, only to be set free in the dead of night with no publicity to speak of into the care of the Archdiocese. When the story picks up again in July 2001, Geoghan now stands accused of having molested over 80 boys but as awful as this sound, the news only rates a couple of small stories in the Globe and nothing more--not surprising in a town where the Catholic Church wields such power and where members make up a large percentage of the subscriber base. Frankly, the writers at the paper are more concerned about the arrival of newly-hired editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber) and the cuts that might occur as a result. Surprisingly, one of Baron's first moves is to turn the story over to the Spotlight section--a long-form investigative unit headed by editor Walter Robinson (Michael Keaton) and manned by crack reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James)--in the hopes of bringing new heat to the case and new attention to the paper in the community.

Each reporter pursues a separate line of inquiry. Rezendes is charged with trying to get flamboyant lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci) to convince some of the 86 Geoghan victims he is representing to talk and getting the courts to unseal potentially damning documents that the Church has managed to keep under wraps for years. Pfeiffer starts looking into molestation claims against other local priests that would suggest that Geoghan was not simply the proverbial bad apple and winds up butting heads with a slick local attorney, Eric MacLeish (Billy Crudup), who has been involved with a number of clandestine settlements between the Church and victims over the years. While poring through official Archdiocese documents, Carroll figures out a way of determining when troublesome priests were removed from their parishes, only to be sent to "treatment centers" before being placed in a new parish with no mention of his past misdeeds.

Eventually, their investigations suggest that at least 87 priests in the Boston area may have sexually molested children and had their crimes buried by a coverup extending all the way to the Vatican. With Baron and deputy managing editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) carefully overseeing the proceedings, the Spotlight team races to connect the last few dots and put together an airtight story while trying to stay one step ahead of both rival newspapers, who could blow their exclusive with one early story, and the Church, a far more powerful and influential institution in the eyes of many Bostonians and one well-prepared to go after the paper in the court of public opinion.

Obviously, the story at the heart of "Spotlight" could have been told in any number of different ways. There could have been a version focusing on the victims as they slowly come to terms with what happened to them while trying to bring their tormentors to justice. There could have been a version focusing on the Archdiocese and the lengths that they went to in order to cover up the misdeeds of too many of their own. There could have been a legal-themed take centering on Garabedian and his Herculean task of trying to take the Catholic Church to court in a city as pro-Catholic as Boston. Any of these approaches could have resulted in a potentially interesting movie but by focusing exclusively on the journalistic investigation, the film allows us to touch on all of those aspects without getting caught up in their potential cliches as well--there are no scenes showing kids being victimized, no scenes of priests gathering behind closed doors and no scenes of impassioned courtroom speeches. Instead, we get to see all the little bits and pieces that would eventually come together into the bigger and more horrifying picture--lots of chasing down leads, digging through old files and the things that reporters used to do once upon a time.

"Spotlight" was directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy, whose previous film was "The Cobbler," a disastrous fable with Adam Sandler that came and went earlier this year. Under normal circumstances, I would not even mention that film--partly out of politeness and partly because it was an oddity in a directorial career that also includes such low-key winners as "The Station Agent," "The Visitor" and "Win Win"--except to note that he will be one of the rare filmmakers to have movies running high on lists of both the best and worst films of the same calendar year because his work here is exemplary. The screenplay, which he co-wrote with Josh Singer, is a marvel of screenwriting in the way that it takes an incredibly complex tale and pares it down to its essentials without ever pulling punches or going off on unnecessary dramatic tangents.

While the film obviously positions the journalists as the heroes of this story, he takes pains to remind us that they too are imperfect by highlighting the fact that their paper was just one of the many institutions that largely ignored the scandal for years and tacitly allowed molestations to happen by not aggressively reporting them, even when they had key evidence years earlier. The film also resists the urge to "humanize" these characters by delving into their personal lives for the most part--other than the occasional brief glimpse of one of them at home, we only see them through their work and that is still enough to allow their intelligence and humanity to shine through without underlining it for the audience. In fact, there is really only one scene in the film that rings false--a pre-fab Oscar clip in which Mark Ruffalo anguishes about the need to get the story out as quickly as possible--and that can sort of be excused on the basis that it almost seems designed to ring false, especially since his character's arguments are soon demolished.

This is also McCarthy's most exciting work as a director to date. Working on a much larger scale than his previous efforts, he keeps all of the myriad balls, such as a large cast and a screenplay that could easily devolve into a confusing mess with one misstep, in the air for the duration without dropping one along the way. He keeps the film humming along at a solid pace without ever allowing it to feel rushed. The cast--many of whom are veterans of the newspaper movie genre (Keaton was in "The Paper," McAdams appeared in "State of Play" and Ruffalo, of course, was in "Zodiac")--is excellent across the board and sink so deeply into their characters that they feel like real reporters and not like actors playing dress-up. He also figures out a way to present the material in a way so that there is a palpable sense of tension throughout even though everyone going to see it most likely knows how the story eventually turned out even if they are a little fuzzy on the details.

"Spotlight" is easily the best movie made about journalism since "Zodiac" and it belongs on the short list of the great titles in the genre along with that one and "All the President's Men." It is a smart and uncompromising look at how a terrible story was finally brought to light by a group of professionals simply doing their jobs and will leave you simultaneously outraged by the crimes and the attendant coverups and excited over the possibility that the victimizers may at long last be getting the justice that they so richly deserve. Hell, it might even inspire you to go out and do the unthinkable and buy a newspaper before it is too late.

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