Saturday, November 21, 2015
Spotlight is a measured but powerful film about how The Boston Globe researched and reported the 2001 story of the Boston archdiocese and its handling of sexual abuse by priests. Directed by Tom McCarthy (who cowrote with Josh Singer), Spotlight is also the story of a how an American institution thought to be in decline - the daily newspaper - took on another institution that one character in the film describes as “thinking in centuries”. “Spotlight” refers to the Globe’s investigative team, a unit headed by “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton) whose star reporter is the dogged Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo). The Spotlight team is used to picking their own stories and not working under time pressure, but new editor Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber, committing to an unshowy role) pushes the reporters towards the story of abuser priest John Geoghan and the question of whether Cardinal Bernard Law (Len Cariou) knew of Geoghan’s behavior. The investigation quickly expands as the team learns of new abuser priests and meets new victims.
The cast of Spotlight is full of familiar faces and strong performances; Rachel McAdams and Brian D’Arcy James also play reporters on the Spotlight team. But the film’s best performance is given by the actor playing a character who serves to highlight just what a small town Boston really is. Stanley Tucci plays Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer representing victims who is outside the city’s legal establishment. (Billy Crudup and Jamey Sheridan play high-end lawyers whose allegiances are called into question.) Garabedian, who Tucci plays with a wonderful, harried dignity, is at first reluctant to speak to Rezendes but eventually puts him in touch with some of his clients. While Robinson and the other Spotlight reporters uncover the Church’s practice of settling abuse claims outside the court system it’s Garabedian who points out just how much the Church influences Boston society. In one conversation Garabedian asks Rezendes, “How many Armenians do you know in Boston?” It’s the outsiders like Garabedian who sound the alarm in the Boston case, but the city’s sons and daughters on the Spotlight team - Robinson calls the Globe a “local” paper - are charged with spreading the word about just how much damage was done. Stanley Tucci is brilliant in this role; it’s a master class in character acting, as Tucci conveys volumes about the way Garabedian approaches his work just by the way he eats a salad or sits at his desk.
Thomas McCarthy and Josh Singer aren’t afraid to detail the laborious work of reportorial process. Their script eschews almost all melodrama and aren’t-we-noble backslapping for a series of phone calls, hushed conversations, and internal debates about how much time and latitude the reporters have to work with. It’s Schreiber’s Baron who pushes the team to go beyond the issue of identifying abuser priests to look at systemic corruption in the Church, while Robinson’s boss Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) looks for vulnerabilities in the reporting. A scene in which one of the reporters learns a Church “treatment center” for priests is in his neighborhood threatens to become indulgent, but McCarthy cuts the moment off with a restrained button shot. The Spotlight team is urged by one prominent citizen (Paul Guilfoyle) to “get on the same page” with the Church, but the scope of the story and the number of people affected are too big to ignore. McCarthy wisely cast unknown actors as victims - and in one case as a priest the reporters stumble across- and the ensemble puts a human face on decades of abuse.
With it’s detail-oriented approach to journalism and its view of how a large institutions work with and against each other, Spotlight recalls such wide-angle lens works like All the President’s Men, The Wire (Thomas McCarthy played an unscrupulous reporter on that show), and the nonfiction book A Civil Action. Like those works Spotlight is a triumph of storytelling, with the script maintaining the broad framework of the investigation while not losing focus of the people affected. McCarthy, who has previously directed small character studies like The Station Agent and Win Win, has made a mature and vital American film which is certainly one of the year’s best. The last shot of Spotlight takes place after the team’s story has been published, and it suggests just how many more stories of that kind remain to be told.