Monday, November 23, 2015

In Theaters: SPOTLIGHT (2015)

(US - 2015)

Directed by Tom McCarthy. Written by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy. Cast: Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Brian D'Arcy James, Billy Crudup, Len Cariou, Jamey Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Gene Amoroso, Neal Huff, Elena Wohl. (R, 128 mins)

"We've got two stories here: a story about degenerate clergy, and a story about a bunch of lawyers turning child abuse into a cottage industry. Which story do you want us to write? Because we're writing one of them."

As much a chronicle of the Boston Globe's breaking of a cover-up of systemic sexual abuse in the Catholic church as it is a document of a dying profession, SPOTLIGHT is a film that dives deep into the nitty gritty of newspaper reporting. What's refreshing is that it does so without the sense of heroism, martyrdom, and apologia that TRUTH, another recent journalism drama, rather shamelessly wallowed. In TRUTH, 60 MINUTES II producer Mary Mapes is crucified for rushed and sloppy work on a story about George W. Bush's days in the National Guard, but the film wants to make her a saint anyway, and an uncharacteristically grating Cate Blanchett's overwrought performance has her barreling through it doing everything short of wearing a "For Your Consideration" sandwich board to get awards attention. SPOTLIGHT goes in the opposite direction, immersing the audience in the daily grind of hardworking reporters. A lot of the film has them talking on phones, jotting down notes, and fumbling for a pen when theirs runs dry. They leave messages, check sources, meet interview subjects in coffee shops, sit outside offices waiting for an appointment, dig through files and old newspapers, and thumb through dog-eared reference books and directories chasing every tip, lead, and theory they get. They go where the story takes them as each new development opens up another Pandora's Box of paperwork and legal hurdles. A smart film that makes the boring minutiae of the job riveting, SPOTLIGHT may just be a notch below the great modern-era journalism films like Alan J. Pakula's ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976) or, to an extent, David Fincher's ZODIAC (2007), but it's easily the best film about investigative reporting since Billy Ray's SHATTERED GLASS (2003).

After a prologue set in 1976, where a molesting priest is quietly ushered out of a police station by Boston Archdiocese officials, the story moves to the summer of 2001 with Globe's hiring of new chief editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), a man known for his bottom-line concerns during stints in New York and Miami. Baron thinks there might be a story in an alarming number of allegations against that 1976 priest, which got a brief mention in the Metro section some time back, but was never pursued with any vigor by the paper. Wanting to re-establish the Globe as the local paper of record with a focus on Boston concerns, Baron directs the Spotlight team--a four-person crew of reporters who work on months-long investigative pieces--to chronicle the paper trail of accusations against the priest.  Led by editor Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton), the Spotlight team--Mike Rezendes (a jumpy Mark Ruffalo), Sasha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian D'Arcy James)--go to work, butting heads with lawyers, victims, church officials, rival papers, and concerned city big shots among others, not to mention the whole effort being jeopardized when Baron makes them put the story on the backburner for six weeks after September 11, 2001, during which time the Spotlight team is temporarily split up and assigned to other 9/11-related beats. Boston is a strongly Catholic community, and there's a concern that such talk may not rest well with the devout churchgoers. But when old Archdiocese guides show that many of the molesting priests--they eventually uncover 87 of them in Boston alone--were classified as "on sick leave" during times that coincide with the accusations, the Spotlight team correctly hypothesizes that it's a status given to priest reassigned to other parishes or sent away after an abuse incident that's settled privately and promptly buried by Cardinal Law (Len Cariou), the head of the Boston Archdiocese who's known of the plethora of incidents that have been going on for decades, with the cover-up trail leading all the way to the Vatican.

Directed and co-written by Tom McCarthy (THE STATION AGENT), who somehow made this and the career-worst Adam Sandler movie THE COBBLER in the same year, SPOTLIGHT boasts one of the year's strongest ensembles, headed by a resurgent Keaton on the heels of his triumphant BIRDMAN comeback. Keaton's been down this road before in Ron Howard's underrated THE PAPER (1994), and he's perfectly cast as the driven, quick-witted (when told by a lawyer friend that he read an article about Baron being the Globe's first Jewish editor, Robby replies "Really? Must've been a slow news day") Spotlight leader. McAdams and James are fine, but don't really stand out like Keaton or, for better or worse, Ruffalo, whose mannered performance takes some getting used to but is said to be an accurate portrayal of Rezendes. The actors also get sterling support from Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan as tight-lipped, big-shot attorneys behind a series of abuse case settlements, John Slattery as the Globe's managing editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. (whose father was executive editor of The Washington Post when Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein broke the Watergate story), and Stanley Tucci as victims' advocate Mitchell Garabedian, an eccentric, crusading lawyer who's been representing a number of abuse victims in their cases against the Archdiocese. SPOTLIGHT is as no-nonsense as its characters, a methodical and matter-of-fact grinder that tells its story as effectively as the Spotlight team pursued theirs. It doesn't make Baron, Robinson, and the writers into glory-seeking heroes--they're just people doing their job and doing it with commitment and tireless determination. TRUTH was about glory, but SPOTLIGHT is about the guts.

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