By Nick Anstett
It’s the summer of 2001, and another Boston Catholic priest is in court due to allegations of sexual abuse regarding a minor. To most people it may be another footnote in a long history of nebulous court cases and news blurbs surrounding the church. It would hardly make the front page of a newspaper. It’s the new editor of The Boston Globe Marty Baron, played by Liv Schreiber in “Spotlight, who sees a potential story there and in the process unlocks one of the most pervasive and disturbing conspiracies in the history of one of the world’s oldest institutions.
Given the dense and heavy subject matter, it is a wonder that “Spotlight,” directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by Josh Singer, is as kinetic and engrossing as it is. From the start there is a certain energy and immediacy to the narrative. It is a movie that is appropriately restless and angry with its place in the world despite the fact that its central historical topic is approaching 15 years old. A part of this is due to the incredible pacing and breezy, but at the same time, fittingly layered script that McCarthy and Singer have crafted. In a way, it plays against a simple case of upstanding journalists fighting to uncover the truth behind moral corruption and abuse in one of the world’s most powerful organizations, the Roman Catholic Church. “Spotlight” finds itself at its most exciting and stirring when it tackles the overwhelming cultural influence that the church has over Boston and the difficulties that it creates in discovering the truth behind the sprawling series of cover-ups. It is in this aspect that the film also proves to be the most chilling. Due to the fact that “Spotlight’s” subject matter follows real life tragedy so close, these moments of revelation are unnerving in their presentation and their out of film connotations. In this context, when “Spotlight” is at its best, it does not simply focus on journalism, but it mirrors it, acting to inform its audience just as much as it does the chronicling of an event as a whole.
If there were an Academy Award for “Best Ensemble Cast,” “Spotlight” would have grabbed the Oscar and ran with it. Its stellar cast is filled to the brim with some of the most talented actors and actresses currently in Hollywood turning in compelling and magnetic performances. Michael Keaton acts as the closest thing to the film’s lead as the director of The Boston Globe’s special topics research group, Walter Robinson. Heading his team are reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sarah Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carrol (Brian d’Arcy James) along with collaborating editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery) and defense lawyer Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci). The ensemble is ultimately what makes the film work as well it does. It distillates the sprawling investigation of court cases and church documents into something human and palatable but also enthralling. While the reporters’ inner lives and psychology are mostly kept as background detail to the investigation itself, the talented cast (Keaton, Ruffalo, and McAdams in particular) tease out moments of personal conviction, frustration, and personality through performances that are suitably subtle and at the same time personable. It makes “Spotlight” endlessly watchable despite the dramatically heavy subject matter and the dense plotting.
“Spotlight” may slip under the radar for many potential viewers, which is, in and of itself, a disappointment. It is a movie that demands viewership and discussion regardless of how removed we are temporally from the controversy at its center. McCarthy’s directing and writing along with the film’s stellar cast make for a perfectly paced and engrossing two hours of cinema that is sure to leave viewers chilled and speechless. Like many of the year’s best offerings, “Spotlight” is marked by an underlying faith of human beings to do justice to their community in the face of adversity. There’s a sense of optimism and conviction amidst the overwhelming face of conspiracy and abuse, and it’s ultimately what makes “Spotlight” a must see cinema.