(2015) True Life Drama (Open Road) Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery, Brian D’Arcy James, Stanley Tucci, Elena Wohl, Gene Amaroso, Billy Crudup, Jamie Sheridan, Paul Guilfoyle, Len Cariou, Doug Murray, Sharon McFarlane, Neal Huff, Duane Murray, Brian Chamberlin, Laurie Heineman. Directed by Tom McCarthy
Reporters are sometimes referred to as ink-stained wretches, harkening back to the 19th century when that was literally true. They’ve traded quill and parchment for computers and the Internet, but what remains true today as it was then – few in the general public really have a sense of what goes in to writing and reporting the news.
Spotlight covers the Boston Globe investigative reporting team – also called Spotlight – and their game-changing 2001 investigation of the Roman Catholic Church and the sex abuse scandals that was being covered up by the Church. It’s an important enough story that writers McCarthy and Josh Singer felt that it needed to take precedence over the reporters who reported the story – something that journalism films rarely do. Even All the President’s Men, perhaps the most respected journalism film of all time, elevated reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward to heroic proportions.
With a new managing editor now in place, Marty Baron (Schreiber) who comes to the globe by way of the Miami Herald and other papers, Baron suggests that a long-gestating story – about Fr. John Geoghan who had been convicted of multiple counts of child abuse – and the Church’s role in covering up the scandal – get coverage by the Spotlight team.
This was no small matter. Boston was and is a very Catholic town. The Church is very much entwined in a whole lot of secular matters, including politics, business and of course, the news. Baron gets an invitation early on by affable Cardinal Law (Cariou) to meet with him so that Baron is made to understand his place in how things work in Boston. Quite frankly, it’s a chilling moment.
Spotlight editor Walter “Robbie” Robinson (Keaton) and his team of senior reporter Mike Rezendes (Ruffalo), reporter Sacha Pfeiffer (McAdams) and reporter Matt Carroll (James) are turned loose on the story. The bulldog-like Rezendes goes after court documents that lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Tucci), who is representing several survivors against the Church, informs him have been sealed. The softer Pfeiffer interviews survivors, often seeing them dissolve into tears of shame. Robinson works the golf courses and receives troubling and veiled threats to back off.
Eventually the team begins to realize that the cover-up involves more than one priest in Boston…and eventually more than one city around the world. As the scope of what they’ve discovered begins to unfold, the team realizes that they may be in over their heads. They also realize they can’t ignore their own connections to the Church – but can they ignore the suffering of the many victims, who begin to number in the thousands?
The story is, of course, one that we’re all familiar with as the scandal involving the Church became international news a decade ago. Fortunately for us, McCarthy chose not to make the reporters the central aspect of the story. This movie isn’t about them, although they get the most screen time and they are in many ways our own avatars. No, this is about the victims and the story, which required some often tedious work to bring to print. Many journalists who have seen this have said this is the most accurate depiction of journalism in the history of film. Despite the nature of the work which involves a lot of time on the phones and on the web, McCarthy manages to keep the movie from being boring.
Part of the reason for that is because he has a cast to die for. Keaton, so marvelous in Birdman, is on a definite roll. Not only is he turning in Oscar-worthy performances but he’s doing it in Best Picture contenders, as this will surely be. As for Ruffalo, this is his finest performance yet, playing the pugnacious Rezendes like a heavyweight champion daring his sources to take their best shots. He is passionate about his job and as the scandal deepens to global levels, his frustration with the Church he grew up with and his realization that he could never go back to it now is more than memorable; it’s unforgettable.
=As this took place primarily in the fall and winter – with a notable pause to cover the attacks on the World Trade Center, for which several flights originated at Logan Airport – the screen always has a kind of cold and distant quality, ranging from autumnal rain to winter snow. There are rarely sunny days in a movie, befitting the subject. I’m sure the real reporters felt that sunny days might never come again.
This is most definitely one of the best movies of the year and a serious Oscar contender in a number of different categories. While some might recoil from the subject matter, it is handled delicately and respectfully. While some might think that this is a boring procedural, let me reassure them that it’s simply not the case. Simply put, this isn’t the easiest subject matter to tackle – but it’s done so well that you leave the theater knowing you’ve just seen something special. And it is.
REASONS TO GO: Riveting performances and story. Excellent writing. Powerful and emotional. Accurate rendition of how news is reported.
REASONS TO STAY: Drags a tiny bit in places.
FAMILY VALUES: Some fairly foul language, adult themes and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Investigative reporter Ben Bradlee Jr. is the son of Benjamin Bradlee, the editor of the Washington Post who oversaw the Watergate reporting of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein depicted in the film All the President’s Men and who was portrayed by Jason Robards in that film. Keaton used Robards’ performance as a template for his own, mixed in with his own observations of the real Walter Robinson.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/30/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews. Metacritic: 93/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Absence of Malice
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: The Good Dinosaur