January 17, 2017

Spotlight (2015)

In 2001 the Boston Globe gains a new editor, Marty Baron (Liev Shreiber), who directs the paper's dedicated "Spotlight" team to investigate claims that the city's Catholic Cardinal Bernard Law knew that one of the city's priests was sexually abusing children, but relocated the priest rather than remove him from the Church or report him to the police. As the team - led by Walter "Robby" Robinson (Michael Keaton) - investigates, they uncover a larger story than they could ever have imagined.

Spotlight is based on a true story: the above-mentioned investigation into the Catholic Church's unofficial policy of relocating and hiding abusive priests to avoid scandal. The real-life story won its writers a 2003 Pulitzer Prize, and had enormous repercussions for the Church worldwide. Tom McCarthy's 2015 film adaptation is a phenomenal piece of work that was appropriately rewarded with the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is an intelligent, provocative and powerful work of filmmaking.

It is a very carefully controlled film with a measured pace and a generally quite underplayed tone. I suspect that is intentional, and I am convinced it is also necessary. The subject matter that dominates the film - a widespread and systemic cover-up of prolonged sexual abuse of children - is deeply upsetting stuff. Even a calm, passionless conversation about the events that took place is enough to get a viewer worked up and furiously angry. Were the characters to become visibly upset as well it would perversely reduce the effect that the film has. The characters are predominantly journalists with a task to express the facts of the matter clearly and fairly. They cannot afford to get emotionally involved as well, and when they inadvertently do it catches their breath right out of them. It leaves a sustained tone of mild dread and upset. Simply by calmly expressing its story Spotlight manages to achieve a deeply felt upset that lingers right through to the closing credits and beyond. It is a very worthy film, because the injustices done here in the real world deserve to be known by everyone. The awful, irredeemable betrayal undertaken against its own followers deserves to be the first thing on anybody's minds when they think of the Catholic Church.

Journalists make for the best film protagonists, because it is in their job description to investigate and reveal story. There is a long and healthy tradition of newspaper-based movies in Hollywood, and Spotlight stands up alongside All the President's Men as one of the very best. The film is structured like a detective story. While it is ostensibly a drama, the gravity of the information being uncovered makes it feel more like a thriller. It gets remarkable tense in places. Asides from showcasing abuse in the Church Spotlight also stands as a love letter to quality journalism. The clickbait infested, fake news dominated online media has made a mockery of decent journalism in recent years. This film makes a sterling case for the desperate need we all have for a smart, fair and balanced fourth estate.

An ensemble cast delivers outstanding performances, in some cases what I would consider career-best work. Leiv Shreiber is a case in point, giving a deliberately measured and cool performance as Marty Baron. The Spotlight team themselves are uniformly excellent, including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams and John Slattery, and a number of other A-list actors like Stanley Tucci and Billy Crudup make strong contributions as well.

This is a brilliant film: brilliantly acted and written, brilliantly shot and beautifully scored. It is exactly the kind of drama that Hollywood used to excel at making, and every time I see a film like Spotlight, or Argo, or The Ides of March, I am reminded that Hollywood still manages to make them today. Spotlight is enormously impactful, and hugely emotive in the most careful and refined of ways. This is an A-grade film.

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