"Spotlight" Is Smart, Compassionate Cinema

July 2001. Spotlight, the Boston Globe’s five-person investigative team, is quietly trolling for a new story. Theirs is an industry in flux. With newspaper circulation threatening to cliff-dive, attention-grabbing topics are a must. The Globe’s zealous new editor Marty Baron corners Walter Robinson, Spotlight’s typically autonomous player-coach, and pitches him a Molotov cocktail.

Whispers of child molestation by Catholic priests have risen to a murmur, particularly within the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston. But the Church’s stature has kept the rumors in a vice and potential victims under nothing short of a suppression order.

Baron’s proposal to Robinson is the equivalent of journalistic bomb defusal, but with no manual and no precedent. Robinson’s initial reticence is no surprise; what his team goes onto find certainly is.

This is the gist of writer-director Tom McCarthy’s “Spotlight,” a film that’s almost inhumanly human and preposterously disciplined. By doling out real-life revelations in a compelling fashion while maintaining the air of anger and sadness inherent in the material, it’s able to do something few films in 2015 have done: matter.

Blessed by a spectacular cast with no true lead character among them but a multitude of distinct personalities, McCarthy’s movie is the year’s quintessential ensemble piece and a sure-thing Oscar contender.

Michael Keaton – coming off Best Picture winner “Birdman” and Best Actor theft by Eddie Redmayne – plays the aforementioned Walter Robinson, the picture’s de facto lead. It’s not nearly as memorable as his “Birdman” performance, but that’s precisely the point, with Keaton walking his character down an incredibly narrow corridor of pressure and fear and selfishness and courage. The way McCarthy and Keaton are able to layer Robinson without a surplus of dialogue or screentime is noteworthy. That McCarthy does the same with nearly every other character in the movie, no matter how big or small, is remarkable.

Liev Schreiber’s portrayal of editor Marty Baron is even more succinct, making bank with even less face time than Keaton. As the investigation’s overseer, the movie wouldn’t work without his warm, determined presence looming over scenes he’s not even in. In a largely underrated career, it might be the Schrieber’s best turn to date. Short, sweet, and leaving us wanting.

Rachel McAdams makes a similar impression as Sacha Pfeiffer, perhaps the most compassionate member of Robinson’s team. Her interviews with several sexual abuse victims are some of the movie’s most delicate passages, and McCarthy wisely calls on McAdams, possessor of natural empathy and warmth, to make these scenes impactful instead of exploitative.

Since Brian d’Arcy James is easily the least well known of the main players (he plays Spotlight team member Matt Caroll), McCarthy wisely equips him with a critical subplot that physically hits close to home. It culminates in what’s arguably the film’s most unforgettable scene, a minor but absolutely cathartic bit of storytelling that underlines the filmmaker’s grasp on his story.

But it’s Mark Ruffalo as Mike Rezendes, the team’s fifth member, who turns in the best performance of the film and his career, giving life to the nervous energy that undoubtedly hung over these people’s lives for the better part of a year. His past work in iconic procedurals like “Collateral” and “Zodiac” undoubtedly went far in preparing him for this role, and he lands it so squarely that it necessitates awards attention.

Apart from its real-life implications, there’s nothing exactly groundbreaking about “Spotlight.” It leans hard on a formula established by genre staples like “Ace In The Hole” and “All The President’s Men.” And it’s often hard to watch.

But it is exemplary in its humility and its craftsmanship, transmitting the weight of its subject matter without glossing over details or exploiting victims. It understands the 20th century system corruption of the Catholic Church, it understands the resultant rage, and it understands the heavy heart that comes with bringing this story to screen. And it delivers a handful of goosebump-inducing scenes.

The world would be better off if “Spotlight” wasn’t necessary in first place, but it is, and the end result couldn’t be much more impressive.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ out of ★★★★★ (Very Good)

Release Date: November 6, 2015 (Limited)
Studio: Open Road Films
Director: Tom McCarthy
Screenwriter: Tom McCarthy
Starring: Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, Brian d’Arcy James, John Slattery, Stanley Tucci, Billy Crudup
MPAA Rating: R (for some language including sexual references)