MOVIE REVIEW: Spotlight

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"SPOTLIGHT"-- 5 STARS

The extraordinary new film "Spotlight" answers the motivating historical benchmark set by "All the President's Men" nearly four decades ago to make a truly transcendent film about real print journalism and true history.  Chronicling another Pulitizer Prize-winning case of investigative journalism, director Tom McCarthy's fifth directorial effort is nothing short of a new masterpiece.  "Spotlight" is, far and away, the best film about the media since George Clooney's "Good Night and Good Luck" and the best about print journalism since Pakula's landmark classic.  This film will make people rewrite "best of" lists.   

"Spotlight" documents the Boston Globe's research and coverage of the Catholic priest sex abuse scandal that rocked Massachusetts and the nation in early 2002 and went on to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.  The winning reporting was anchored by the Globe's off-the-books Spotlight team, the oldest continuously operating newspaper investigative unit in the country.  Spotlight keeps its assignments and projects confidential until they are fit to print.  

In 2001, the Spotlight branch was led by editor Walter "Robby" Robinson, played by "Birdman" Oscar nominee Michael Keaton.  He oversaw a three-reporter team of Michael Rezendes (Fellow Oscar nominee Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (an adult Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (noted Broadway actor Brian d'Arcy James).  Even with hands-off rules and free access, Robby still answered to his close colleague and Deputy Editor Ben Bradlee, Jr. ("Mad Men" boss John Slattery) and the newly-installed Head Editor Marty Baron (a keenly restrained Liev Schreiber).

Working from a screenplay written by McCarthy and writing partner Josh Singer ("The Fifth Estate"), "Spotlight" methodically tracks the old school journalism work from a time when the internet was just getting started.  Each member of the Spotlight team takes an angle in uncovering more information about the always-whispered-yet-never-addressed rumored cover-up of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic priests in the Archdiocese of Boston.  Bursting with initiative, Rezendes partners with Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci, always great), a small-time lawyer with the heart and courage to challenge the court's invisible gag on this case.  Pfeiffer begins to sort out the many sordid and horrifying accounts of the vocal and repressed victims that have organized in SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests).  Carroll researches the cataloged and documented backgrounds of the personnel comprising the nearly 300 Catholic parishes in Boston going back decades.

The leaders above the team on the ground also do their legwork.  Robby, a local and distinguished Catholic school product himself, presses two high-end attorneys, one a close friend (Jamey Sheridan) who represented the church and another (Billy Crudup) that has earned questionable settlements in these cases.  At the highest tier, gilding his new newspaper, Marty Baron confronts Cardinal Law ("Blue Bloods" CBS star Len Cariou), his office, and his bureaucratic shield Peter Conley (great character actor Paul Guilfoyle) looking for fair treatment and cooperation.  Everyone involved reverts back to the same overarching questions.  What is the truth and why has this story has never been fully reported?  The depth and reach of what the Spotlight team finds is appalling and enraging.  Most of all, they know what the printed truth will do to a city that is nearly 50% Catholic.

McCarthy's film is a supreme actor's showcase.  This ensemble is flawless at every level.  Not a single performance is preening or misaligned with the central cause to respect the stern roots of the actual history.  In different hands, someone would be grandstanding with their stereotypical over-the-top Boston accent, chewing scenery, and trying to steal scenes in an effort to win an Oscar.  The performers here let their actions within their roles do the talking.  That effort of merit over showmanship might just win them Oscars anyway.  The greatness starts with Michael Keaton and Mark Ruffalo.  Keaton's flinty performance in "Spotlight" is the polar opposite to "Birdman" and might be even better.  Ruffalo is given the role requiring the most passion and he nails it.  The dilemma for Oscar voters will be who is the lead actor and who is the supporting actor.

Lockstep with the acting is an unwavering attention to journalistic detail.  The film received full access and cooperation from the Boston Globe and it works to create a throwback atmosphere.  "Spotlight" successfully maintains a suspenseful narrative pace matching that "you know how it ends" mirage achieved by "All the President's Men."  An excellent catalyst to that tone is Howard Shore's masterful musical score, a subtle-yet-strong composition light years away from his brassy pomp from "The Hobbit" and the "Lord of the Rings" trilogies.  Film score fans will double-take when they see Shore's name in the credits and then hear his touching piano chords.  Overall, material like "Spotlight" is a tremendous leapfrog forward into high-end filmmaking for director Tom McCarthy.  After several Independent Spirit Award wins for "The Station Agent," "The Visitor," "Win Win," and his backwards step of working with Adam Sandler in the straight-to-VOD, 9% Rotten Tomatoes bomb of "The Cobbler" from last year, McCarthy is fully realizing his potential.  His knack for characters and nuance is given larger canvas and his work doesn't waver.

"Spotlight" impresses to no end at putting you at the heart of the conviction found in these diligent reporters and the volatile environment of the city's shattered faith.  The expression on the characters' faces and the impact of the revealed truths are gut-wrenching.  Moments in the film will elicit both gasps and tears.  "Spotlight" is movie that can put a lump in your throat, open your eyes, and create a clenched fist or jaw all at the same time.  This film is both history lesson and rallying call.  Put bluntly, "Spotlight" is the kind of movie and story that would make someone think twice or even leave the Catholic religion.  That substantial effort and dramatic effect is beyond the typical level of the usual and interesting behind-the-scenes intrigue found in most other films based on the media or journalism. 

LESSON #1: THE RELIGIOUS DRAW OF WHAT LED TO THIS DOCUMENTED ABUSE-- There is a chilling line given by the leader of SNAP when he's interviewed by the full Spotlight staff.  Referring to the reasoning that ended up making him a victim, the gentleman replied to the reporters inquiries on why he didn't resist with "How can you say no to God?"  These "men of the cloth" that were supposed to be leaders, teachers, people you can trust, and people that represented the holiness and faith you believed in. They used their position to essentially become predators, targeting the awkward and poor who clung to attention, and justified their actions with God.  Above the individual priests, the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston was an equally ironclad and trusted entity, one worth millions of dollars as well.  No one was going to question them and go against such a trusted and respected institution.  That's the scariest aspect of the rampant volume of this case.  This was spiritual abuse to go with the sexual and physical offenses and an entire community knew about it and could do little to nothing about it.

LESSON #2: THE SCOPE AND CULTURE OF SECRECY IN SUCH A COVER-UP-- Over the discovered course of history unearthed by this investigation, incidents were systematically dusted under the rug by the Catholic Church.  Priests were transferred or put on leave and victims were either ignored or given small settlements with strict legal agreements to stay quiet.  Conservative estimates done by researchers concluded that likely 3% of all Catholic priests nationally could be abusers.  In Boston at that time, that would be around 90 priests.  Nationally, using 2000 statistics, 3% would have been 1,350.  That's an epidemic, not a collection of isolated incidents and the end credits of the film list all of the dioceses and cities that identified similar cases to Boston's after the 2002 reporting.  The list takes five screens to complete.  The amount of lying, resources, lawyers, and money to cover such an epidemic for that long with little to no consequences is mind-boggling.  Knowingly or unknowingly through blind trust in Boston, Spotlight editor Walter Robinson knew that an entire community and culture was to blame, from those who stayed silent to those who had the power to do something and didn't, himself included.

LESSON #3: THE HARD WORK OF "THE LITTLE GUY" VERSUS THE LARGER INSTITUTION-- The ominous power held by the Archdiocese of Boston, a wealthy financial benefactor in so many aspects of the community, was strong enough to silence anyone and resist fault and failure.  The diocese possessed the resources to weather any storm.  Through determination and diligence, small efforts finally made enough noise and, forgive the expression, raised enough hell, that no one could ignore anymore.  The Spotlight team was comprised of only four core reporters.  They made this story happen, but this lesson truly shines on lawyers like the Mitchell Garabedian character, taking pro-bono cases for victims who have no one strong enough to fight for them.

LESSON #4: THE POWER AND IMPORTANCE OF INVESTIGATIVE REPORTING-- Last and certainly not least, "Spotlight" celebrates the necessary role of investigative journalism.  The power and role of the press has been honored and respected by this country since the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights expanding the United States Constitution all the way to the access rightly empowered by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) that has been in place since 1967.  As much as we call out and bemoan the politicized and sensationalized versions of journalism today, there are stalwart entities in the fight that seek the truth.  Those independently-minded individuals that burn the candle at both ends to research, report, and draw the proper attention to real issues in their community are vital to society.  There will, and should, always be a platform and a place for investigative journalism.

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