THE STORY – In 2001, editor Marty Baron of The Boston Globe assigns a team of journalists to investigate allegations against John Geoghan, an unfrocked priest accused of molesting more than 80 boys. Led by editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton), reporters Michael Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Matt Carroll and Sacha Pfeiffer interview victims and try to unseal sensitive documents. The reporters make it their mission to provide proof of a cover-up of sexual abuse within the Roman Catholic Church.
THE CAST – Mark Ruffalo, Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Liev Schreiber, John Slattery & Stanley Tucci
THE TEAM – Tom McCarthy (Director/Writer) & Josh Singer (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 129 Minutes
By Josh Parham
Different people require different things from the films they watch. For many, there is a necessity to see a film that masters a good deal of directorial flourish in order to be seen as something truly great. For others, the presentation of an interesting story is all that is needed. The most successful films should vie for both, but an imbalance doesn’t necessarily tip it into mediocrity. “Spotlight” is a particular case and an example of a very straight-forward narrative that carries few bells and whistles. However, what is presented is a fascinating tale that still manages to find an engaging way to tell its story.
For anyone who may be unaware, the film details the harrowing true-life story of the reporters of the “Spotlight” division of The Boston Globe during the early 2000s. They are a small but effective team of investigative journalists who have been given the task to expose the decade’s long sexual abuse scandal within the Catholic Church organization. Under the leadership of Robby Robinson (Michael Keaton), fellow reporters Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams) and Matt Carroll (Brain d’Arcy James) pour through years of meticulous research to uncover a dark secret that has been intentionally kept hidden from public knowledge. Their ultimate goal is to shed light on this important topic and help the many survivors that have been left in its wake.
What is immediately apparent about this film is that its greatest asset is the performances. The entire cast is full of capable actors who do an incredible job in contributing to a tightly focused ensemble that supports the story. Keaton is the closest thing that comes to a lead here, and as such he finds a subtle strength that helps to anchor all the players around him. He also supplies many of the film’s most effective emotional beats. McAdams and James also do solid work in making their scenes engaging without being overbearing. The only member of the core cast that is not as strong is Ruffalo. He is the only member of this cast choosing a very affected portrayal, and it comes across as overtly mannered and distracting. He is by far the one given the most outlandish scenes, but in a cast that finds great work in subtleties, his histrionics do a great deal to detract from the greater whole.
However, there other supporting members of this cast who also do fine work. The best among them, my favorite performance amongst this cast even, is Liev Schreiber, the new Editor-in-Chief of the Globe who assigns the story to the Spotlight crew. Schreiber does a fantastic job at creating a character who is never loud or showboating and exhibits a quiet strength that is heavily internalized. It’s a magnificent showcase for how quiet, subtle acting can still provide such a commanding screen presence. There’s also great work being provided from the likes of Stanley Tucci in a role that balances the prickly yet inviting persona and a brief yet quite powerful turn by Michael Cyril Creighton as a survivor who is incredibly impactful in his limited screen time.
Up until this point, Tom McCarthy was a filmmaker known for his intimate character studies that seldom relied on a heavy plot. Films like “The Station Agent,” “The Visitor” and “Win Win” all managed to capture this spirit beautifully. “Spotlight” moves its focus more toward the plot and makes the investigation the true main character. As such, it can be easy to critique the lack of characterization that film has since it favors the mechanics of the story. At the same time, this is the nature of most procedurals, and McCarthy does deserve credit for balancing all these elements in a way that keeps the audience engaged all the way through. His script, co-written with Josh Singer, is also well-constructed and a great showcase for smart dialogue. There are not many technical elements that are exemplary, but I would single out Howard Shore’s score, which manages to capture a simple yet effective motif through his piano that is appropriate for the film itself.
There is certainly a case to be made that this film does not rise above the level of “workman-like.” However, even though its cinematic ambitions may seem minimal, the effect is strongly felt. The excellent ensemble of actors holds up a story that is straight-forward but effective in its dedication to the painstaking research needed to uncover such an important story. While the film does not have the flashiest aesthetic, it still remains a fine piece of filmmaking. A great movie does not always need a master craftsman at work to dazzle with technical wizardry. Sometimes all you need is a good story, that is well told and that is exactly what “Spotlight” provides.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – An excellent ensemble cast, a strong script and an engaging story that is told well in a straight-forward manner.
THE BAD – Mark Ruffalo’s performance is at odds with everyone else’s more subtle work. McCarthy’s lack of flash can come across as too mundane.