Movie Review: Spotlight
R | 128 min
Director: Tom McCarthy
Writers: Tom McCarthy (screenplay), Josh Singer(screenplay)
by Jason Koenigsberg
Tom McCarthy’s Spotlight is a gripping film chronicling the uncovering of a scandal involving pedophile priests in the Boston area. It allows the story to slowly unravel from one or two isolated incidents of molestation to a massive cover-up by the Catholic Church on a global scale of epidemic proportions.
The film opens up in 1976 at a Boston Police station where the officers just released Father John Geoghan, one of the more well known repeat offenders during the scandal who would actually end up being murdered in prison in 2003. We see then from the subtle cues by the actors that this is commonplace in Boston and that the police officers are choosing to look the other way.
Jump forward to 2001 at the headquarters of The Boston Globe we meet a team of investigative journalists who run a section of the paper named ‘Spotlight’ that requires a lot of research sometimes taking over a year before they print a story. The team is led by Michael Keaton, who was last seen giving the performance of the year in 2014’s Oscar Winner for Best Picture Birdman, and he once again delivers an award worthy turn. In fact all of the acting is stellar, Keaton leads the way but fellow reporter Mark Ruffalo is just as good and they both deserve best supporting actor consideration come Awards season, as does Stanley Tucci for his smaller role as an attorney trying to fight the good fight and facing threats of being disbarred for uncovering incendiary facts about the Catholic Church which is very powerful in Boston. Another great performance that deserves recognition is Rachel McAdams who is another reporter on Keaton’s ‘Spotlight’ team that is forced to question her own faith as she uncovers more and more dirt on priests that molested children only to be moved around from parish to parish.
The filmmaking style is heavily influenced by Alan J. Pakula’s 1976 classic All The President’s Men, which dealt with the most famous case of investigative journalism as Woodward and Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal. This is a very well directed film and Tom McCarthy made it feel like a smart adult thriller from a previous era when directors like Pakula, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet made films like this more often.
He also managed to capture the city of Boston extremely well on film. Not only is the acting great with subtle New England accents that feel genuine and not over the top, the film is rich with little Boston details in so many scenes like showing them at Fenway Park or even when they just mention the Red Sox. Plus the product placement of W.B. Mason office supplies and Harpoon Beer are both New England staples that are very common to the Boston region and can be found in many scenes.
Where Spotlight succeeds the most is how it deals with its themes of power and corruption in religion. Many times the reporters could have broke their story sooner but Keaton’s character insisted they wait, much to their chagrin because as they investigated they uncovered more priests and more victims of abuse. It explains how the church condoned or at least turned a blind eye to spiritual abuse as well as physical abuse committed by Catholic priests in the Boston area.
McCarthy shows a lot of churches, which are very common in Boston, but he shows them in placement very near to playgrounds and schools. This has a powerful emotional impact as you hear victims come forward and tell reporters their painful and traumatic stories.
The director also knows when to use close ups and does so at all the right times to create an impact, such as a conversation between Keaton and McAdams as they questioned a lawyer played by Billy Crudup about certain cases that he worked on.
There is a great quote that captures the message of Spotlight in a sentence. Stanley Tucci’s character says to Mark Ruffalo, “It takes a village to raise a child, it also takes a village to abuse one”. This film is not only an attack on the shameful cover-ups by the Catholic Church but it is a smart commentary about Boston’s small town mentality. For a big city Boston is very homogeneous. Spotlight illustrates how predominantly white and Catholic their population is, adding to the tight grip the institution of the Church has over the entire region. Liev Schreiber plays a Jewish reporter from Florida who gets a job at The Boston Globe and the film does a very good job subtly reminding you that his character is an outsider and not one of “them”.
Ultimately, Spotlight is a compelling story of a few muckrakers taking on a major scandal head on and trying to demolish a corrupt institution from the top down. It is very well directed by Tom McCarthy, has a smart script that never patronizes its viewers and the actors are pitch perfect, never over acting when they easily could have, but constantly conveying a sense of urgency to their performances. It is a love letter to investigative journalism and one of the best films of 2015.