Sunday, March 13, 2016

Spotlight Movie Review

Thankfully after the sour taste of Truth, a journalism movie with good intentions but very poor execution and understanding of proper journalism, Spotlight came along to remind us that there are people who get it. They get that investigative journalism can be a tool and a force for change and for good and that the ends in themselves are not always justified even if your story is right, or is most likely right. Good journalism requires good, fair, and accurate reporting. It’s about dogged determination in getting people to talk or reveal secrets. Spotlight, directed by Tom McCarthy and co-written by him and Josh Singer, sis the best movie about the process of investigation and what goes into reporting a story since All the President’s Men.

The subject matter of reporting on the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal in the city of Boston could have been turned into a thriller, a race-against-time story that might sell more tickets, but would ultimately do a tremendous disservice to reporters and to the victims. McCarthy has crafted a procedural which could have turned out dry, dull, and forgettable, but he and Singer brilliantly work suspense into the slow build to when the team of reporters has the information they need to publish a story.

With the number of elements at work for inclusion in the story, it’s an incredible feat of screenwriting to have included so many and still keep the film at a honed and focused two hours and five minutes. The title refers to the Boston Globe’s team of investigative reporters who grind away on one big story for several months to a year. So the story has to find time to develop those four characters as well as the newspaper’s new Editor-in-Chief, Marty Barron (Liev Schreiber), a Boston outsider coming from the Miami Herald. Then there’s the details of the story itself: past newspaper articles on the subject; a lawyer representing victims; a massively powerful organization with its hand in most aspects of public life in Boston; the victims themselves; and the people of the city who will feel the impact of such a story coming to light. I can only imagine the daunting pressure facing McCarthy and Singer as they first started hammering all these elements into coherence. How do you work all that in and still accurately represent on screen what it’s like to be an investigative reporter, but keep it interesting for the viewer.

If you’re not aware of the crux of the investigation, it centered not just on the fact of their being abusive priests working the city of Boston, but that the Archbishop himself, Cardinal Bernard Law, had knowledge of the extent of the problem and sought, along with other high-ranking Church officials, to systematically cover it up. Similar stories have, of course, popped up all over the world where the Catholic Church has a strong hold. In fact, Spotlight closes with a terrifying list of cities where it’s happened.

Michael Keaton plays the Spotlight team editor, Walter “Robby” Robinson. The three reporters working with him are Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James). Their work is shown to be full of roadblocks including editors who don’t want to waste time on something that won’t pan out; sources who won’t or can’t talk; average citizens who feel threatened by the subject matter and lash out; and the Catholic Church which uses its deep coffers and strong will to silence whomever it can. Deep reporting is a long grind involving hours of phone calls and follow-ups, organizing notes, and gently caressing sources to get them to reveal more than they really want to. And then 9/11 happened, the biggest blockade of all to the reporters completing their work. Journalistic attentions and resources had to be diverted elsewhere, but once the dust had settled, this team got back to their work.

One of the most fascinating pieces of the investigation is Mitchell Garabedian, a lawyer played by Stanely Tucci. He is Rezendez’s source and the guy representing several abuse victims. Garabedian claims to have documents proving that Law knew and implemented a cover-up, but the documents are under seal. Garabedian is under attack (so he claims) by the Church, who attempt to discredit and even disbar him. The stakes are enormous if there is even the appearance of impropriety in his talking to a reporter. But his and the newspaper’s goals are similarly aligned and the way his aspect of the story unfolds is a beautiful example of teasing suspense and reveals.

Spotlight is not a film of technical bravado, but a success of structured screenwriting and all-around high quality acting. Keaton’s performance is the very model of understated. His work is all in his eyes and body language and non-verbal affirmations and acknowledgments. He’s all about the “Hmms” and “Uh-huhs” that pepper dialogue and he uses them to communicate as much as lesser actors can do with a full sentence. Save the big important speech that sort of announces, “I’m acting now,” Ruffalo gives as good a performance as ever. Less flashy, but equally important in how strong their acting needs to be are Schreiber and Tucci as well as Billy Crudup as a lawyer who negotiated good deals for the Church in abuse cases. Less recognizable actors like Neal Huff and Michael Cyril Creighton add an air of believability and empathy as two victims processing their pain in vastly different ways.

This should be a film long-remembered and praised. It is a work of surpassing importance on a subject that I feel certain will continue to be a social problem long into the future. Also, in a time when journalism is so often in thrall to corporate interests, a climate in which sensationalism is valued over news-worthiness, and the fifth estate generally looks as if it is no longer the noble institution it once was, Spotlight is reminder that there are still good people doing solid and important work. Their reporting is as important, if not more, than it ever was.

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