Holy Work: A “Spotlight” Review

By: Daniel Reynolds

The newest film from Tom McCarthy, Spotlight, makes a remarkable show of restraint given its subject matter. It’s definitely a movie with a message, complete with “based on actual events” at the outset and multiple screens of post-script at the end, but it doesn’t break its arm trying to pat itself on the back. Instead, the film centres on a clear-eyed investigation–the people involved, the process of it and only the merest hints of the result. There is minimal emotional caterwauling here, and few cinematic flourishes. Despite a foregone conclusion, Spotlight opts instead to step adroitly through its narrative, while staying engrossing all the same. Sometimes restraint works.

This is Spotlight.

This is Spotlight.

Spotlight summarizes the Boston Globe’s investigation into alleged child molestation cases involving priests in the Catholic Church. As a city most readily identified as Irish Catholic, it’s easy to see where dramatic tension could be mined from. The film’s title is in reference to the team of journalists who undertake these long term investigations; they dig through records, tirelessly interview everyone involved and are constantly pounding the pavement in a search for answers. In quick strokes we meet Matt (Brian d’Arcy James), moustachioed dad; Sacha (Rachel McAdams), lapsed Catholic; Mike (Mark Ruffalo), agitated workaholic; and their stolid leader Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Each is a representative of some slice of Boston. After their paper gets a new editor-in-chief, Marty Baron (Liev Schreiber), the crew is given a new mandate: review the spate of cases involving priests and children to find out if Cardinal Law, and by extension the entire institution of the Catholic Church, knew something was wrong and did nothing.

Apart from his huge Sandler-sized misstep earlier this year, McCarthy has, over the past dozen years, made reliably small, smart, and empathetic films stocked with well-crafted performances by quality actors. He writes and directs the kinds of movies studios are accused of not making anymore. Spotlight is that type of film to the nth-degree. After a brief opening prologue set in the 70s, all of the film’s action takes place in straight forward chronological order with minimal fuss or flair. We’re drawn into the story on the strength of the premise and the outrage inherent in its outcome. The Spotlight team members each have their own stake in exposing the institutional corruption in their city, but their reasons never quite get in the way of the overarching professionalism. These guys do the job because it’s their job to do.

As such, the acting in Spotlight follows these same sharp lines of professionalism. While Keaton and Ruffalo will probably garner some (deserved) calls for Oscar nominations, watch McAdams as she questions victims; or regard how Stanley Tucci (playing an eccentric and crusading lawyer) is at turns embittered and open; see Billy Crudup (as a smooth talking litigator) as his eyes slide from confidence to panic; or just bask in Liev Schreiber’s thoughtful assertion of power. (John Slattery is also on hand to do his John Slattery thing.) We learn very little about anyone in Spotlight. My two word descriptions of some of these characters were not made in jest (well, not entirely). We’re introduced to each of them as they relate to the investigation and to their job. Sure, McCarthy doesn’t leave them completely adrift out there, but it’s amazing what a good actor can do with the slightest of motivations and context. (Also, none of them try for an embarrassing Boston accent.) For his part, Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes is my favourite to watch. As the hard-working reporter of Portuguese descent, he finds yet again a different gear from his recent performances. This time Ruffalo bounces through his scenes with a noted aggressiveness, like he can’t sleep until the story is told. As with Schreiber and Tucci’s characters, his Rezendes is marked as an outsider, a man who is not quite part of the network of old Irish brothers who govern Boston. While the tension this creates is far from explosive, it does set some interesting themes on edge as the older, connected, Boston guys (mainly Keaton’s Robby) are forced to face what has become of their city’s most significant institutions.

Yes, this film finds a way to make conference calls compelling.

Yes, this film finds a way to make conference calls compelling.

But this is just the minor window-dressing of Spotlight‘s main purpose. The film may not go in for large-scale histrionics or sling its camera to-and-fro, but this is still an urgent piece of work. What McCarthy is constructing here is a film where child abuse victims’ voices are heard, where wounds are opened, where trust in the normal goings-on amongst what should be civilized people is broken. I was not moved to tears after watching Spotlight, nor was I filled with any acute rage. It does not strike me as that kind of film. But I was drawn to how well it methodically exposes the flaws inherent in systems of entrenched authority; how well it sums up the ills of us vs. them thinking, of a compromised free press, of institutions unable or unwilling to change. There is no draconian villain in the film, though Len Cariou‘s genial Cardinal Law comes close. Spotlight subtly pierces through such simple definitions of good and evil. These are all just people trying to tell their story. With this film, even with the painful subject matter, it is easy to pay attention.

3 responses to “Holy Work: A “Spotlight” Review

  1. Pingback: review: spotlight (2015) | just my rating·

  2. Great review Daniel. Worthy of any I read in the papers. I followed this story when it first appeared about the time of 9/11 & enjoyed reading about the squirming that Cardinal Law did. What’s clear by the end of the movie is that nobody’s Snow White, everybody played along to get along & that you need a cool outsider to prod you to do the right thing.
    But it still bothers me that Cardinal Law just got a Roman holiday after the whole sordid thing.

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